Are Employers Liable for Employees' Car Accidents?

When an employee causes an accident while performing a work-related task, the employer may be on the legal hook for resulting injuries and property damage.

If the driver of a car, truck, or other vehicle is using that vehicle on the job, then the driver's employer could be liable for any injuries resulting from a traffic accident for which the worker was at fault. The same goes for any vehicle damage resulting from the accident. But the issue isn't always as clear as it might seem.

In this article, we'll cover the basics of an employer's liability for car accidents, the "on the job" requirement, the "independent contractor or employee" question, and more.

Employers' Vicarious Liability for Employees' Actions

Under a personal injury fault concept known as "vicarious liability," an employer can be held liable when an employee's careless or accidental conduct ends up harming someone else. This is true whether the employer is a private individual, a business, or a public agency—every situation from a pizza delivery person rear-ending another driver to a city bus driver causing an accident while on his or her route.

This rule of employer liability for an employee's negligence applies whether the injured person is the driver of another vehicle, a pedestrian, a passenger in the employee's personal car being used on the job, or a passenger in the employer's car being driven by the employee.

Was the Driver 'On the Job'?

Whether someone is on the job while driving is not always a simple question. In general, any time someone is performing any duties related to work, the person can be considered on the job even when he or she is also doing personal business and driving a personal car.

For example, running errands in a personal car during lunch is not considered work-related, but if the employee is also picking up or dropping off something for work, the lunchtime driving becomes "on-the-job" time. Likewise, commuting to and from work generally is not considered on-the-job driving, even in a company car. But if the driver has to make work-related stops on the way, or has to drive to and from a job site other than the usual place of business, the driving might legally be considered on-the-job driving.

Learn more about when one person might be liable for another's driving.

Was the Driver an Employee or an Independent Contractor?

Especially since the dawn of the so-called "gig" economy, it's not always easy to sort out whether a worker is truly an employee of a given company. The differences between employee and independent contractor can seem vague from a practical standpoint, but it's a crucial distinction in the eyes of the law.

Typically, if the person who caused your accident was working as an independent contractor at the time, there's no company that will automatically bear legal responsibility (as an employer typically would). But there can be a bit of a gray area in some instances (including accidents involving rideshare drivers) when a company provides insurance for its independent contractors. Learn more about employees versus independent contractors.

You Can (Sometimes) Let the Insurers Sort It Out

When you're injured in an accident caused by someone who you think was "on the job" at the time of the crash, proving that was the case isn't usually something that will fall to you. Most drivers have personal liability car insurance coverage, so if you believe the driver might have been on the job, send a notice of the accident to both the employer's business insurance company and to the driver's personal insurance company. Then the two insurers will have to sort out which one will provide the primary coverage for damages resulting from the accident.

Only if the driver is personally uninsured, or has insurance coverage so low that it does not provide full compensation for your injuries, will you have to concern yourself with the question of whether the employee was on the job when the accident happened. If there is no simple answer, then the issue becomes another factor thrown into the general hopper of topics for injury settlement negotiations—along with who was at fault for the car accident and the nature and extent of the resulting injuries and other losses.

Sometimes, the issue of whether an employee was on the job can become both very significant to the outcome of your claim and very complicated. If the only available insurance is through the employer and the insurer is arguing that the employee wasn't working at the time of the accident, you may need to hire a personal injury lawyer to sort things out.

Getting More Information and Legal Help

For more tips on filing a claim for injuries after a car accident, and in-depth information on what to expect at every step in your case, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo). And if you're thinking about filing a lawsuit after a car accident, you may want to consider talking with a personal injury attorney to make sure that all your legal bases are covered and your rights are protected.

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