Under Utah’s Liability Reform Act, a Plaintiff can Still Maintain a Separate Claim Against Employer who Conceded Vicarious Liability
Supreme Court of the State of Utah: In 2013, Duane Ludlow (Ludlow), a bus driver for the Nebo School District (Nebo) turned a school bus in front of Plaintiff Ramon (Ramon) and caused a collision wherein Ramon was injured. After a basic investigation, it was found that Ludlow had a myriad of driving issues and complaints, “including not stopping long enough before entering intersections, rolling past stop signs, and speeding around corners. ”
Ramon sued Ludlow and Nebo for various negligence claims, including vicarious liability (respondeat superior) as well as a separate claims for Nebo’s own negligence in hiring and retaining said driver. Nebo filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, arguing that Ramon’s claims against Ludlow and Nebo were essentially the same and since Nebo conceded vicarious liability, the claims against Nebo should be dismissed. The district court agreed and granted the Motion.
In July 2021, the Utah Supreme Court reversed and held that the district court erred when it granted Nebo’s Motion stating that “Ramon…is entitled to proceed to trial on alternative claims.” The Court held that Ramon’s negligent employment and negligence claims were not redundant as the two claims have distinct elements.
The Court acknowledged that some jurisdictions (specifically citing to the Ferrer case from Colorado as discussed herein) adopt the “McHaffie rule,” that the claims are a concurrent form of negligence, based in part upon a belief that the rule would prevent a plaintiff from double recovery. The Utah Court rejected that notion, determining that there were better tools to address that potential outcome, including jury instructions, special verdict forms, or even removal of the doubly-covered portion through post-trial motions.
The Court also dispelled the notion that allowing both claims to proceed may inflame the jury against the employer for continuing to employ the driver with knowledge of his less than stellar record. The Court held that “in most instances the best course is to rely on our district courts’ discretion to determine whether evidence should be admitted” via Utah Rule of Evidence 403, which permits a court to “exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by…unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.”
The Court concluded that “we ultimately reject the McHaffie rule for an even more basic reason: it is incompatible with Utah’s Liability Reform Act. The Act provides that ‘[a] person seeking recovery may recover from any defendant or group of defendants whose fault, combined with the fault of persons immune from suit and nonparties to whom fault is allocated, exceeds the fault of the person seeking recovery’…Under the Act’s plain language, Ramon is entitled to request that the jury determine the proportion of fault attributable to Ludlow’s negligence in driving and Nebo’s negligence in its supervision of Ludlow…Nothing in the Act allows Nebo to use respondeat superior as an off-ramp from having fault apportioned to it directly for its own negligent acts.”
The Court also added this footnote, “[t]o be clear, we are not suggesting that a separate theory of liability against Nebo increases the amount of damages Ramon could recover… But we reject the argument that because a separate theory of liability against Nebo cannot increase the amount of damages Ramon suffered in the accident, a jury cannot consider that theory of liability and assign fault accordingly. And we reject the related argument that because Nebo concedes that it will ultimately be financially responsible for any damages, Ramon loses the ability to ask the jury to apportion fault between Nebo and Ludlow.”
Ramon v. Nebo School District, 2021 UT 30.