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Respondeat Superior

When Is An Employee On The Job?

The crucial question in a respondeat superior claim is whether the employee was acting within the scope of employment: Was the employee involved in some activity related to the job? In 1991 the Supreme Court of Virginia decided a case, Sayles v. Piccadilly Cafeterias, Inc.,242 Va. 328, 410 S.E.2d 632, that illustrates how difficult answering this question can sometimes be.

The case began with a Christmas Eve accident in 1987. Charles Sayles was a passenger in an automobile hit by another car, driven by Stephen Belcastro. Both men were leaving the Christmas party held on the premises of their company, Piccadilly Cafeterias, Inc, of Richmond, Virginia. Belcastro had become intoxicated at the party and, later, explained that he was "fooling around" when he drove his car into the left-hand lane of the road, lost control, and struck the other car, injuring Sayles.

Because Belcastro was intoxicated as a result of having drinks provided by their employer at a company-sponsored event, Sayles sued Piccadilly under the doctrine of respondeat superior. The jury returned a verdict in Sayles's favor and awarded him damages of $11.5 million. The trial court set aside the judgment, however, ruling that Belcastro had been acting outside the scope of his employment when the accident occurred.

On appeal, Sayles cited a Virginia appellate case, Kim v. Sportswear, 10 Va. App. 460, 393 S.E.2d (1990), from the previous year. Kimwas a WORKERS' COMPENSATION case whose facts were similar: it involved an employee fatally injured while attending a Korean New Year's party sponsored and hosted by the employer. The appellate court had allowed recovery of damages against the employer.

The Supreme Court of Virginia declined to follow Kim, however. The court noted first that Kim was a workers' compensation case, governed by a statute that is to be "liberally construed in favor of the claimant." The court also made several factual distinctions: employees were expected to attend the party in the Kim case, whereas the party in Sayles did not carry such expectations. Further, the injury in Kimtook place on the employer's premises, in contrast to Sayles, where the collision did not occur until five minutes after the drivers had left the party. Based on these facts, the Saylescourt held that Belcastro was not engaged in the business of serving his employer at the time of the accident and therefore the employer could not be held liable.

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