In McHaffie v. Bunch, 891 S.W.2d 822, 824 (Mo. banc 1995), the Missouri Supreme Court held that once an employer has admitted to respondeat superior liability for an employee driver’s negligence, it is improper to allow a plaintiff to proceed against the employer on any other theory of imputed liability, such as negligence in employee hiring, retention, or training. This has often allowed trucking companies and others who employ drivers to resist discovery on subjects such as company background checks on its drivers, training procedures, and driving tests: information plaintiffs’ attorneys sought in the hope of painting the company in an unfavorable light, even where industry standards and governmental regulations were met or exceeded. However, in dicta, the McHaffie Court alluded to the possibility that an employer or an entrustor may be liable for punitive damages that would not be assessed against the employee entrustee, based on facts which could arise from the hiring, training and/or supervision of said employee. 891 S.W.2d at 824. This “punitive damages” exception has been seized upon in two recent rulings, one from the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District; the other from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
A. Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District – Wilson v. Image Flooring
On March 19, 2013 the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District found that under the exception cited in McHaffie, the plaintiff had proffered sufficient facts in support of his claim for punitive damages on theories of negligent hiring, training, supervision and entrustment, to permit the issue to go to the jury. Thus, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of partial summary judgment in Plaintiff’s favor. Wilson v. Image Flooring, 400 S.W.3d 386 (Mo. App. W.D. 2013).
B. U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri – Harris v. Decker Truck Line
Soon thereafter, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri denied a Motion to Dismiss filed by defendant trucking company, holding that the Plaintiff’s pleadings for punitive damages based on negligent hiring, retention, training and supervision were legally sufficient to avoid dismissal at the pleading stage. Harris v. Decker Truck Line, Inc., 2013 WL 1769095 (E.D. Mo. Apr. 24, 2013).
C. Policy Considerations.
The reasoning in McHaffie limiting the use of such evidence is sound, and is based on good public policy. Litigation over driver negligence should be about the driving behavior, not about events that occurred long ago with respect to hiring or training, which had no real causal relationship to the accident. Allowing the plaintiff to get into these issues under the guise of a punitive damage claim in a civil case is somewhat akin to a prosecutor in a criminal case arguing that he wants to get into the accused’s prior crimes to show causation for the current charge.
Companies who employ drivers must now be very mindful of recent case law citing this exception, which threatens to swallow the fundamental rule of McHaffie. Counsel for plaintiffs are likely to argue that the entire file for each driver from application through the date of an accident will now be subject to scrutiny.