Lavonta Green was employed by Pan-Oceanic Engineering Company (Pan-Oceanic). Green was tasked with hauling construction equipment to various locations. On the day that is the subject of this suit, Green was asked by his supervisor to pick up a skid steer, which is a large piece of equipment used for digging, to Patten Industries. Employees at Patten's loaded the skid steer onto Green's trailer. He observed that the skid steer looked crooked and surmised that it was not loaded properly. Green asked Patten employees to reload the skid steer, but they refused. He then called his supervisor at Pan-Oceanic and told him that the equipment was not loaded properly. The supervisor told him to drive with the equipment to the drop-off point and to "be safe." Green entered the freeway with the skid steer and as soon as he accelerated to near freeway speeds he noticed that the equipment was bouncing on the back of his trailer. Soon after he was involved in an auto accident with McQueen who was injured in the accident.
McQueen brought a claim against Green and Pan-Oceanic. The suit claimed that Green, as an employee of Pan-Oceanic, was negligent in the operation of his trailer on the freeway by choosing to drive with an improperly loaded skid steer. He also claimed that Pan-Oceanic was negligent for failing to train Green properly, and ordering him to proceed with an improperly loaded skid steer that it knew or should have known about. McQueen sought punitive damages from both defendants stating that they acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others. Pan-Oceanic acknowledged that Green was their agent and that he was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident.
Issue Before the Court
In this case, the court examined whether an employer's admission of vicarious liability for an employee's negligent act prevents the plaintiff from bringing claims of direct negligence based on the employer's own conduct. The appellate court concluded that an admission of respondent superior or vicarious liability on the part of the employer does in fact preclude other claims by the plaintiff against the employer for direct negligence. This court disagrees.
Vicarious Liability v. Direct Liability
Direct liability places the responsibility for the negligent or wrongful act squarely on the shoulders of the person or entity who committed the act. In contrast, vicarious liability holds a person or entity responsible even if they did not personally engage in the conduct that caused the injury. Vicarious liability exists when a special relationship, such as an employer and an employee relationship, exists between the wrongdoer and the principal.
Under common law, an employee's wrongful acts result in liability for the employer as well in the following scenarios:
- Vicarious liability for the acts of the employee or direct liability for the employer's own acts. Vancura v. Katris, 238 Ill.2d 352, 375 (2010).
- The plaintiff alleges that the employer was directly responsible or negligent. In this case, the plaintiff must show that the employer breached a duty, rather than the employee, and that the breach was the proximate cause of the injuries sustained by the plaintiff. Id.
As to the specific question at hand, courts across the country are split on how to assess whether the admission of vicarious liability precludes a plaintiff from also bringing a cause of action for direct negligence against the employer. One of the leading cases that courts rely on in this area is McHaffie v. Bunch, 891 S.W.2d 822 (MO. 1995), in which the court held that direct negligence claims are barred if the employer has already acknowledged vicarious liability. In this Supreme Court of Missouri case the court stated, "Once an employer has admitted respondeat superior liability for (it's employee's) negligence, it improper to allow a plaintiff to proceed against the employer on any other theory of imputed liability." Id.
Courts that have relied on McHaffie, continue to bar plaintiff claims for direct negligence if an employer has acknowledged vicarious liability for the employee who committed the wrongdoing. Although many jurisdictions have cited this decision as the majority view, the court in the present case found after a more thorough examination, that courts are actually quite split on this issue. Several courts have rejected McHaffie and allow plaintiffs to plead both direct and vicarious liability claims. "A plaintiff may assert and pursue in the same action a claim against an employer based upon respondeat superior and also maintain a separate claim targeting the employer's direct negligence in hiring, retention, supervision, or training." Ramon v. Nebo School District, (2021) UT 30 ¶ 17, 493 P.3d 613. The court here also rejects the McHaffie decision.
A Plaintiff May Plead and Prove Multiple Causes of Action
A plaintiff may plead as many causes of action that the facts permit so long as each is based upon a good faith belief that such claim is warranted and has the potential for success. "Settled law allows a plaintiff to plead and prove multiple causes of action." Dowd v. Dowd, Ltd. v. Gleason, 181 Ill.2d 575, 557-58 (2007).
In the case at hand, the evidence showed that Patten employees improperly loaded the skid steer and when he alerted his supervisor at Pan-Oceanic he was requested to transport the equipment despite the loading issue. At the close of the evidence, the trial court instructed the jury to consider whether Pan-Oceanic was negligent for instructing Green to proceed to transport the skid steer after it was made aware that it was not loaded properly. This theory of liability did not impute Green's negligence onto Pan-Oceanic. Rather, the plaintiff sought to hold Pan-Oceanic directly liable for its actions. This court finds no basis to prevent the plaintiff from seeking a cause of action for vicarious liability against Pan-Oceanic for the negligent acts of its employee Green. The plaintiff has provided proof to assert good faith claims against Pan-Oceanic for both vicarious liability as well as direct liability.
Conclusion of the Court
A plaintiff may plea and prove multiple causes of action if each claim is presented in good faith. Therefore, a claimant in Illinois may bring a direct negligence action as well as vicarious liability action against an employer. An acknowledgment of vicarious liability does not bar further claims by the plaintiff against the employer.