Alabama Supreme Court Affirms $375,000 Jury Verdict Against Tortfeasor’s Employer

The Alabama Supreme Court recently issued a decision affirming a $375,000 jury verdict against a business under a respondeat superior theory, holding the employee was engaged in both personal and business activities at the time of a motor vehicle accident.

In Hinkle Metals & Supply Co., Inc. v. Feltman, the plaintiff Diane Feltman filed suit for personal injuries she allegedly sustained as a result of a pedestrian versus motor vehicle accident.  Co-Defendant Hinkle Metals & Supply Company, Inc. (“Hinkle”) was in the business of selling heating and air conditioning supplies.  Gabriel Butterfield, a branch manager at Hinkle’s Pelham office, struck the plaintiff while she was walking in downtown Birmingham.  Feltman sued Butterfield and Hinkle, alleging Hinkle was vicariously liable based on a theory of respondeat superior.  Hinkle filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied. At trial, Hinkle moved for a directed verdict at the close of all the evidence and after the jury returned a verdict in favor of Feltman in the amount of $375, 000. Both motions were denied and Hinkle appealed.

On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court explained for Hinkle to be vicariously liable for Butterfield’s actions, Feltman had the burden of presenting substantial evidence the accident occurred while Butterfield was acting within the line and scope of his employment with Hinkle.  It was undisputed that on the day of the accident Butterfield drove from Hinkle’s Pelham branch to Birmingham in his personal vehicle, where he intended to file for a homestead exemption for his personal residence. He testified that he delivered breakfast to one of Hinkle’s regular customers, but did not recall running any other work related errands that day. There was evidence that a transfer request form was completed that morning concerning an air handler unit ordered by the foregoing customer that needed to be transferred from Hinkle’s Birmingham warehouse to the Pelham branch. There was also documentary evidence entered that indicated the air handler was received by the customer that afternoon and that Butterfield’s initials were on a form as the person who entered the sale. Trent Draper, a former radio frequency engineer, testified that Butterfield’s cell phone call records indicated he moved from northeast Birmingham south toward Pelham. Draper used a software program to track the calls but admitted he was not able to take into account every factor that may have affected the routing of Butterfield’s calls on that day.

The Alabama Supreme Court stated the fact that an employee is combining personal activities with the employer’s business does not necessarily signify an action outside the scope of employment. Taking all of the evidence into consideration, the Court concluded a fair minded person could reasonably conclude that Butterfield traveled to Birmingham on the day of the accident for both a personal purpose (to file for the homestead exemption) and a business purpose (to pick up the air handler from Hinkle’s Birmingham warehouse).   In such a case, the Court concluded the question of whether the employee was acting within the line and scope of his employment is a factual issue for the jury.  The Alabama Supreme Court therefore held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Hinkle’s motions for directed verdict, and affirmed the jury verdict against Hinkle for $375,000.

It remains to be seen whether this case will provoke more claims against the employers of individuals involved in motor vehicle accidents.  But the case is important because it may provide additional legal authority for plaintiffs to pursue respondeat superior claims which previously seemed unviable, and potentially avail themselves of what are often much higher liability limits under commercial insurance policies.