On March 29, 2012, the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston, Texas affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the employer and essentially held that there is no legal duty on an employer to investigate its employees’ driving records, absent other indicators of unsafe driving. The case arose out of an automobile accident whereby G&H Towing Co. employee, Joseph Violante, killed Douglas and Lois Magee while driving intoxicated after his shift. Violante was convicted in the criminal courts on two counts of failure to yield the right-of-way and intoxication manslaughter.
In the civil case, Violante was sued along with G&H and William Colson. Both Colson and Violante were employed by G&H as tugboat quartermasters. They worked on the same tugboat, but on opposite shifts. G&H conceded at trial that it was a widespread practice at the company for men working opposite shifts to share the same vehicle to go to and from work. This was called the “employee relief shuttle system.” Pursuant to this practice, on May 14, 2004, Violante borrowed Colson’s vehicle at the end of Violante’s shift and drove himself home. He later drove Colson’s vehicle to a bar, became intoxicated, and caused the fatal collision killing the Magees after leaving the bar.
The plaintiffs, the surviving heirs of the Douglas and Lois Magee, claimed that G&H was vicariously liable for the negligence of Colson when Colson negligently entrusted his vehicle to Violante. This claim was dismissed because the Court determined that Colson did not negligently entrust his vehicle to Violante and, thus, G&H could not be vicariously liable for negligence if Colson was found not to be negligent. The plaintiffs also claimed that G&H was directly negligent for failing to conduct any investigation into the driving records of employees who would be using the vehicles of their fellow employees as part of the company’s employee relief shuttle system. According to the Magees, “[b]ecause the employee shuttle system involved regular use of motor vehicles by company employees for the benefit of the company and the furtherance of its business interests, G&H had a legal duty to investigate the driving records of employees who would regularly use vehicles in connection with this shuttle system.” The plaintiffs argued that G&H had a legal duty to investigate Violante’s driving record beyond just whether he was licensed to drive.
In this case, Violante’s past driving and criminal record contains substantial evidence of incompetent and reckless driving. In the ten years leading up to the fatal crash, Violante had been cited multiple times for causing an injury accident where his license was suspended and he carried no insurance, cited for multiple moving violations, arrested multiple times for DWI, and arrested for driving with a suspended license. G&H argued, however, that G&H did not entrust its vehicle to Violante; rather, it was Colson’s personal car that was entrusted by Colson – not G&H. According to the Court, the plaintiffs’ theory is essentially that G&H’s requirement for Colson to share his personal vehicle with Violante through the company’s relief shuttle system is the same as G&H entrusting a company vehicle to Violante. The Court stated, “for the Magees to prevail, we would have to conclude as a threshold matter that an employer has a duty to investigate the driving record of any employee to whom it entrusts a vehicle beyond ascertaining that the employee has a valid driver’s license.”
Before reaching its conclusion, the Court noted that Violante had a valid driver’s license when he was hired by G&H and at the time Colson entrusted his vehicle to Violante. The Court then noted that there was no evidence that G&H had actual knowledge that Violante might be an unsafe driver. The Court finally held that G&H did not have a general duty to investigate Violante’s driving record absent other indicators that he may be an unsafe driver. In other words, unless the employer actually knows the employee is an unsafe driver, the employer does not have to check the employee’s driving records to actually know if the employee is an unsafe driver.