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Employer’s Liability for an Employee’s Auto Accident

June 2022

Emma L. Knowles

Where vicarious liability for its employee’s conduct is admitted by an employer, can that employer also be held directly liable for its own negligence in a separate cause of action, even if its employee’s conduct is not negligent? According to the recently decided Illinois Supreme Court case, McQueen v. Green, 2022 IL 126666, the answer is yes, if there are allegations against the employer which are not rooted in the employee’s conduct.

At its heart, a claim brought under the theory of respondeat superior is a derivative claim, meaning that an employer’s liability flows, or derives, from the conduct of its employee. But what happens when an employer’s conduct is allegedly negligent in a manner that is completely separate from its employee’s conduct? This opinion leaves no doubt that in certain circumstances, Illinois employers will be exposed to additional liability for their own conduct.

Green was an employee of Pan-Oceanic Engineering Company (“Pan-Oceanic”). His duties included hauling construction equipment for Pan-Oceanic to use for its construction jobs. On the day of the incident, Green was asked by his supervisor to pick up a heavy piece of construction equipment called a skid steer. The skid steer was to be transported by Green on a trailer, and loaded onto the trailer by Patten Industries, Inc. (“Patten”), the owner of the equipment. When he arrived at Patten, Green saw that the equipment had not been loaded properly onto the trailer, and asked Patten employees to reload it. The Patten employees refused. When Patten’s employees refused, Green called his supervisor. His supervisor told Green only to “be safe” and return to Pan-Oceanic with the equipment.

That afternoon, Green left with the skid steer and trailer by way of the expressway. When Green increased his speed, he saw the skid steer and trailer bouncing in his rear-view mirror, so he tried to change lanes. While trying to change lanes, he stepped on the brakes and his vehicle spun out. Then the trailer swung into a car driven by Plaintiff, injuring him.

Plaintiff filed a three-count complaint in the circuit court of Cook County, naming Pan-Oceanic and Green. In addition to allegations of vicarious liability, the complaint alleged Pan-Oceanic was negligent “for, among other things, failing to train Green on how to respond to an unsafe load; (and) ordering Green to take the load onto the highway when the company knew, or should have known, that the load was in an unsafe state.” The complaint also sought punitive damages against both Green and Pan-Oceanic, alleging both parties “demonstrated a reckless disregard for the safety of others.” Id.

At the close of trial, the jury found for Plaintiff and against Pan-Oceanic, but not Green, awarding damages to Plaintiff of $163,227.45. A second hearing was then had on punitive damages in which the jury awarded $1,000,000.00 in punitive damages to Plaintiff from Pan-Oceanic. Pan-Oceanic then filed a posttrial motion, asking the trial court to enter judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or to grant a new trial, on the basis that its employee Green had been found not liable and thus it could not have liability. Id.

In its ruling on Pan-Oceanic’s posttrial motion, the court agreed with Plaintiff, holding that his allegations of willful and wanton conduct against Pan-Oceanic were for the employer’s own conduct, issuing an order to operate an unsafe vehicle on the expressway, rather than deriving from the employee’s behavior. This holding was based on evidence which showed that although the Green’s supervisor knew that the placement on the trailer was “crooked,” he negligently instructed his employee to drive with it anyway; just “be safe.”

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s finding, holding that where a plaintiff is injured by a company’s employee in a motor vehicle accident, they cannot bring a claim for direct negligence against the employer where the employer admits responsibility for its employee’s conduct under a theory of respondeat superior. The Appellate Court relied on a Missouri case, McHaffie v. Bunch, 891 S.W.2d 822 (Mo. 1995). In McHaffie, “[t]he court reasoned that ‘[i]f all of the theories for attaching liability to one person for the negligence of another were recognized and all pleaded in one case where the imputation of negligence is admitted, the evidence laboriously submitted to establish other theories serves no real purpose,” and that such extraneous and irrelevant evidence might even prejudice the party it is brought against. McHaffie, 891 S.W.2d at 826.

In its final analysis, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the McHaffie rule. Key to its reasoning is the well-settled legal principle that “allows a plaintiff to plead and prove multiple causes of action” where there is a “good faith factual basis” for a plaintiff’s claim of direct negligence by the employer. Id. Here, Plaintiff’s claim against Pan-Oceanic was based on completely different conduct than his claim against Green. Plaintiff claimed Pan-Oceanic was negligent, in part, because “it knew, or should have known, that (the load) was in an unsafe state.” McQueen, ¶ 44. Plaintiff’s claim against Green was mainly that he was “negligent for operating his vehicle on the highway with an improperly situated skid steer.” However, Green understood his supervisor’s instruction as an order, and the jury relied on evidence which established that Green was concerned about the safety of his load and acted reasonably. His employer ordered him to drive with it anyway. Green followed his employer’s order for fear of losing his job. Pan-Oceanic’s actions and Green’s actions were very different from each other, providing a good faith factual basis for separate causes of action.

In sum, the court saw no reason that a plaintiff “should be precluded from seeking to hold an employer vicariously liable for its employee’s negligence, as well as directly liable for its own negligence, separate and apart from its employee’s conduct.

In practical terms this means that if an employer is sued for its employee’s actions while the employee is performing their job duties, not only can a Plaintiff bring claims against the employer under a theory of respondeat superior, but they may also bring additional direct claims against the employer, so long as the basis of those claims is not the same negligent conduct. Unfortunately, this leaves employers in Illinois open to additional liability when sued for the actions of its employees.

  • Chicago Bar Association
  • Workers' Compensation Lawyers Association
  • IRTB
  • DRI - The Voice of the Defense Bar
  • The Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel
  • Illinois Self-Insurers' Association
  • Chicago Bar Association
  • Workers' Compensation Lawyers Association
  • IRTB
  • DRI - The Voice of the Defense Bar
  • The Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel
  • Illinois Self-Insurers' Association
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