Most of us imagine that when a vehicle owned by a commercial business does damage in an accident, the company owning the vehicle will pay the bills. There is usually liability insurance involved, but when there is the matter of punitive damages – damages suffered because of the wanton and willful acts of negligence – there may really be nowhere to turn. Ownership and financial responsibility are not always as straightforward as you might think.
Take the case of Corrugated Replacements, Inc. v. Johnson, 340 Ga. App. 364 (2017). This case is a study in scrambled ownership and tangled accountability.
In July 2011, a young driver was under the influence of alcohol and an inhalant. His truck struck a van in which a family was traveling. The accident killed one child in the van and severely injured other family members. It happens that the truck the young man was driving was part of a fleet of vehicles owned by the boy’s father and his uncle, as part of a family business.
The ownership of the truck was further complicated by the fact that while the boy’s father had paid for the truck and given it to the boy for his birthday, it was left as a company vehicle on the books and the insurance policy for those times when it was needed for work. At the time of the accident, the boy was not at work or performing any work duty but was, for all intents and purposes, driving it as his own personal vehicle.
The injured family in the van sued the company that officially owned the truck as well as the boy’s father individually for punitive damages.
When the matter came to trial, the trial judge denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case. The Defendants appealed, asking the Appellate Court to review whether or not the denial of summary judgment was appropriate before the trial proceeded.
Upon review, the Appellate Court concluded that the trial court erred in not granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
The case against the company and the individual owner who was also the impaired driver’s father should have been dismissed outright because they were not negligent in entrusting the truck to the young man who had never been known to drink or use inhalants and had never had an accident before or even been ticketed for driving infractions.
Furthermore, the appellate court confirmed that since the boy was not at work when the accident happened, the company had no responsibility to the plaintiffs under respondeat superior claim. (This is a rule that applies when an accident happens as a result of business activities. This one did not.)
Ultimately, the plaintiff’s hopes of compensation from the company were dashed since the person who caused the accident through his negligence was the young man, not the company. Only he could be held to account for the damages and loss of life.
There is no doubt that this family was injured in the most personal of ways. The loss of a child can devastate the entire family for decades – perhaps even a lifetime. If you want or need to take a company to court, it helps to know first whether or not the company can be held accountable – sometimes the law applies in harsh and unexpected ways, as it did in this case. Finding the correct path forward, or whether there is a path forward, is critically important.
If you have any questions about bringing a civil claim or lawsuit, call the personal injury lawyers at The Millar Law Firm. We specialize in helping regular people when they are harmed by the negligent acts of other individuals and companies.
Call us today for your free case evaluation. Once we’ve looked at the facts in your case, we’ll help you determine how to proceed. Allow us to help you find your pathway to justice. Call us today.