When a motor vehicle collision involves a commercial vehicle, plaintiffs often sue the commercial driver’s employer through respondeat superior, whereby employers are strictly liable for the negligence of their employers. Some plaintiffs attempt to assert direct negligence claims in addition to respondeat superior, alleging claims such as negligent hiring, negligent retention, negligent supervision, and/or negligent entrustment.
Respondeat Superior and Direct Negligence Claims in Missouri
In Missouri, plaintiffs must pick their poison. The employer may be held liable through respondeat superior or negligent hiring, retention, entrustment, et cetera. Plaintiffs are prohibited from asserting all these claims at once. Respondeat superior, negligent hiring and retention, negligent supervision, and negligent entrustment are all forms of imputed liability in a motor vehicle collision case, because the employer’s liability is completely dependent on the employee’s misconduct.
When the Missouri Supreme Court examined this issue in McHaffie v. Bunch, it held that once an employer/employee relationship is admitted, admitting evidence of other imputed liability theories is a reversible error. Employers are strictly liable for the negligence of their employees through respondeat superior, therefore evidence supporting the other theories serves no purpose. Evidence about hiring practices, corporate structure, log books, training, et cetera is irrelevant and likely inflammatory. Once agency is admitted, the other claims are improper.
Case Law: McHaffie and Coomer
In McHaffie, the plaintiff was a passenger in a car that crashed into a large commercial truck. The plaintiff alleged that the truck driver was vicariously liable for the driver’s negligence, and that the driver’s employer was negligent in its hiring and supervision of the driver. The jury apportioned a percentage of fault directly against the employer as a result. However, the plaintiff’s injuries were solely caused by the motor vehicle collision, therefore the negligent hiring and supervision claims were irrelevant. The Court held that the submission of the negligent hiring and supervision claims was a reversible error.
The McHaffie holding was recently upheld in the Court of Appeals in Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball, outside of the motor vehicle context. In Coomer, the plaintiff asserted claims against the Royals for negligent supervision, negligent training, and respondeat superior after Sluggerrr, the team mascot, threw a hot dog that allegedly hit the plaintiff in the face. The trial court required that the plaintiff elect either respondeat superior or another theory of imputed liability because the McHaffie opinion barred the submission of all of them. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in requiring the plaintiff to elect one theory.
The McHaffie Court did leave open a few possibilities for the co-existence of respondeat superior and other negligence claims: (a) when the negligence of the employer is not dependent on the negligence of the employee/entrustee; (b) when punitive damages could be assessed against the employer. See our earlier post on the punitive damages issue here. In essence, there must be some allegation or evidence that directly ties the employer’s conduct to the plaintiff’s injury. titled If the employee’s conduct was the only true cause of the harm (like in must motor vehicle collision), then respondeat superior is the only proper method of holding the employer liable.
When a plaintiff attempts to assert respondeat superior and direct claims of negligence, consider admitting an employer/employee relationship in the Answer. With the employer/employee relationship, the direct claims of negligence may be defeated with a motion for summary judgment based on the McHaffie ruling.
Defeating the direct negligence claims early in litigation may lead to significant savings. Corporate representative depositions, requests for production on medical evaluations and training records, and interrogatories regarding the hiring process all become unnecessary. A McHaffie motion is the best course of action when the employee was clearly acting within the course and scope of employment during the collision.