California: Negligent Hiring and Respondeat Superior

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on July 07, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

California employment laws are complex. And so are the laws relating to employment, such as employment torts. Take, for example, the law of vicarious liability. Respondeat superior and negligent hiring aren’t always that different.

But there is a distinction.

A recent California Supreme Court case outlines this distinction, in a June 23 ruling.

The case involved a vehicle accident involving an SUV, a car and a truck. The truck was driving in the faster lane and was overtaken by the car. The car subsequently crashed into the SUV and the driver of the SUV sued all the parties involved. The truck driver was sued and so was his employer. The employer was sued under the tort theory of respondeat superior as well as under the theory of negligent hiring and retention.

The vicarious liability claim seems obvious, but why the negligent hiring claim?

As it turned out, the truck driver had a past history of accidents. In fact, in one accident, he was found to be at fault and another accident had occurred two weeks before he had been retained by the current trucking company.

But that's not all. The driver was also an illegal alien. And he had used a fake Social Security number and had negative recommendations from previous employers.

Now, the trucking company decided to accept liability on the lesser charge of vicarious liability, if you can call it a "lesser charge". It was really just a different claim that the company hoped would keep all the incriminating and juicy details of Mr. Trucker's past misdeeds out of the courtroom.

But the trial court didn't bite. They allowed the plaintiff to introduce all the juicy details into evidence to the jury.

In the end, the jury found that the trucking company was negligent in hiring.

The trucking company appealed and the California Supreme Court heard the call -- and ruled in favor of the trucking company, finding that the evidence should not have been introduced once the employer was willing to accept responsibility for the employee's acts.

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