Friday, June 12, 2020

Apparent Case of First Impression: Allegheny County Court Allows Independent Negligence Claims Against a Trucking Company to Proceed In Conjunction With Vicarious Liability Claims

In the case of Reutzel v. DTA, L.P., No. GD 17-4735 (C.P. Alleg. Co. Feb. 25, 2020 Connelly, J.), Judge Patrick M. Connelly of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas denied the Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings seeking dismissal of all independent negligence claims against the employer-defendant in this motor vehicle accident case.

In his Opinion, Judge Connelly quoted to federal court decisions but noted that there was no state court authority on the issue presented of whether negligent hiring and supervision claims should be allowed to proceed in a state court case in a trucking accident case where the employer Defendant has agreed that there was an employer-employee relationship existing between the trucking company and the driver.

According to the Opinion, one of the defendant drivers was driving a tractor owned by MM Leasing as an employee of Defendant DTA, L.P.

The Plaintiff included claims of vicarious liability, respondeat superior liability, and master/servant responsibility against the employer of the defendant driver under theories of negligent entrustment, negligent hiring or retention, and negligent hiring or employment.

The employer Defendant filed Preliminary Objections seeking the dismissal of any independent negligence causes of action asserted by the Plaintiff against the employer Defendant. The employer Defendant asserted that these claims of independent negligence on the part of the employer should be dismissed because these claims offer no avenue for additional liability to the Plaintiff as the employer Defendant has admitted to an agency relationship will have them held liability if the driver is found to be negligent.

This state court judge noted that, although the federal courts have accepted such arguments by Defendant employers in this context and have dismissed negligent hiring and supervision claims where the employer concedes the employer-employee relationship, 

The rationale for this rule noted by the federal courts is that there would be nothing to be gained by allowing claims against both the employer and the driver to proceed, and it would be prejudicial due to the possible admission of evidence of prior accidents by the truck driver into evidence.

However, those federal courts have recognized an exception to that rule where a Plaintiff includes a punitive damages claim against the employer.

There is no indication that the Plaintiff in this matter asserted any punitive damage claims against the driver or employer in this case.

Judge Connelly emphasized that, under state court rules, Plaintiffs are permitted to plead claims in the alternative and that to allow these alternative theories of liability to proceed would serve complementary purposes of the law of torts of offering a plaintiff full opportunities to be fully compensated for the injuries alleged as allegedly caused by the parties involved.

Judge Connelly also suggested that the issue could be revisited at the trial stage to determine which claims the trial court judge would allow to proceed to verdict.

Anyone wishing to review this case may click this LINK.

I send thanks to Attorney Brad D. Trust of the Pittsburgh law office of Edgar Snyder & Associates, LLP for bringing this case to my attention.

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