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Does an Employer’s Admission of Vicarious Liability Bar Direct Negligence Claims?

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Attorney Tom MetierThat is the question examined in Ferrer v. Okbamicael, (2017 CO 14). In February, the Supreme Court of Colorado determined, in a case of first impression, that yes, an employer’s admission of liability under respondeat superior bars the plaintiff from claiming other theories of negligence.

Plaintiff Jessica Ferrer and her friend were injured when a taxi driven by Okbamicael, who hit them as they crossed a street in Denver. Okbamicael worked for Colorado Cab Company (“Yellow Cab”), which owned the taxicab. Ferrer filed suit against Okbamicael and Yellow Cab alleging that Okbamicael was negligent and that Yellow Cab was vicariously liable for his negligence under respondeat superior. Ferrer also alleged that Yellow Cab was liable for her injuries under theories of direct negligence and negligent entrustment, hiring, supervision, and training.

Yellow Cab’s first response to the lawsuit claimed Okbamicael was an independent contractor. The company then amended its response and admitted Okbamicael was an employee acting within the scope of his job at the time of the accident, conceding liability under respondeat superior.

The trial court granted Defendant Yellow Cab’s motion for partial judgment on the pleadings and dismissed Ferrer’s direct negligence claims. The trial court stated that though no Colorado appellate court had addressed the issue, it was persuaded by several rulings by state and federal trial courts applying the McHaffie rule.

Several cases have determined once an employer admits vicarious liability, direct negligence claims are barred. The most frequently cited case is McHaffie v. Bunch, 891 S.W.2d 822 (Mo. 1995). In that case, a child was injured in a wreck with a semi, and the guardian sued the driver and the trucking company for damages. It adopted the majority view that once an employer admits respondeat superior liability for a driver’s negligence, it is improper to allow a plaintiff to file claims against the employer on other theories of liability.

In the instant case, Ferrer tried other approaches, attempting to explain why the McHaffie rule did not apply, and to add exemplary damages to the complaint. The trial court denied the motions.

The Supreme Court of Colorado adopted the McHaffie rule, agreeing that where an employer has conceded it is subject to respondeat superior liability for its employee’s negligence, direct negligence claims against the employer that are nonetheless still based on the employee’s negligence become redundant and wasteful. There is also an extensive discussion of McHaffie being applied in Colorado, which is a comparative fault state. The Court concludes that McHaffie is not in conflict with comparative fault approach. The Supreme Court of Colorado affirmed the trial courts orders.

There is a dissent, disagreeing with the dismissal of the direct negligence claims and also in the interpretation of the comparative fault rules as applied to this case. The dissenting justice says the McHaffie rule does not apply here (but he does not necessarily object to the Court’s adoption of the rule) and says this ruling endorses the type of manipulative pleadings and gaming the system that the majority wants to avoid.

The Metier Law Firm is committed to assisting people with personal injury claims throughout Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, and we frequently serve as co-counsel to law firms nationwide. Tom Metier recently secured the largest personal injury verdict in Colorado.

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    Very nice write-up. I absolutely love this website.
    Thanks!