Employer Not Responsible for Fatigued Worker’s Auto Accident, Court Says

Published on Sep 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm in General Blogs.

Does an employer bear responsibility for an auto accident that occurred after a worker’s 22-hour work shift? In a recently decided case, all three Maryland courts came down in favor of the employer.

In Barclay et ux v. Briscoe, et al, personal representative of the estate of Christopher Richardson v. Ports America Baltimore, Inc., Maryland’s top court ruled that an employer can not be held liable for the off-duty motor accident stemming from on-the-job fatigue committed by an employee in his or her personal vehicle.

The Court of Appeals said that on-the-job fatigue is not a “special circumstance” sufficient to prevent the application of the general rule that an employer will not be vicariously liable for the negligent conduct of an employee occurring while the employee is traveling to or from work.

The court’s ruling stemmed from a tragic auto accident that
occurred in January 2006. Christopher Richardson, a longshoreman, was killed in
a head-on collision after he fell asleep at the wheel while traveling home
after having worked a 22-hour shift at the Port of Baltimore.
The other motorist, Sergeant Michael Barclay, suffered catastrophic injuries.

Richardson worked the unusually long shift because one of the vessels into the port had arrived late and officials at the port agreed to have longshoremen working around the clock to help the ship meet its schedule.

After the accident, Barclay filed suit against several parties, including Richardson’s employer, Ports America Baltimore, Inc. Richardson claimed that Ports was liable under two theories – vicariously liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior and primary negligence in failing to protect the general motoring public from an employee driving home following an unusually long shift.

Under respondeat superior, in certain circumstances, an employer can be found liable for the acts of the employee.

Ports said respondeat superior was not applicable because Richardson
was not acting within the scope of his employment because he was commuting home
from work. Ports also contended that it could not be held primarily liable for
the injuries under a negligence theory because it owed no duty to the public to
ensure that an employee was fit to drive his personal vehicle home.

The Circuit Court for Carroll County agreed with Ports and granted its motion for summary judgment. The trial court said liability may be imposed on an employer only when an employee is using his vehicle while carrying out the duties of his employment at the time of the accident. That court also said that under Maryland law, Ports had no duty to protect third-parties from fatigued employees acting outside the scope of employment unless there is a special relationship.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. The Court of Appeals agreed and affirmed the intermediate appellate court.

The state’s top court also rejected the Barclays’ argument that Ports was negligent. Saying that it had examined factual scenarios similar to the Barclays’ situation and had found that it was clear that employer liability
for third-party injuries caused by an exhausted employee commuting home had
been rejected.

This case was an attempt – albeit unsuccessful – to change the law of vicarious liability of employers for essentially overworking their employees and then allowing them to drive home fatigued.

The case was released June 27, 2012.

Belsky & Horowitz has been fighting for the victims of negligence for many years. Call us at 410-234-0100 or email us for a free consultation and let us help you.



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