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Man Steals Dump Truck and Leads Police on Chase

Yesterday afternoon, authorities say a man stole a dump truck from his employer after being fired, committed a robbery and then led police on a chase on I-77, north of Charlotte. After pulling into a rest area, he was involved in a three-hour standoff. The man surrendered peacefully, and fortunately, no one was injured. However, it is easy to imagine that a dump truck being driven by someone in a police chase could negligently cause injuries to someone in a car accident. If the man driving the dump truck had been involved in a car accident, would his employer be potentially liable for injuries sustained? In short, the answer is no, but we’ll go through the analysis below.

The theory of respondeat superior literally means “let the master answer” and holds an employer liable for damages caused by their employees’ negligence during the course of their employment. An employer is held liable for their employees’ negligence because the employee is deemed to be an agent of the employer. The North Carolina Supreme Court has explained that

if an agent is negligent in the performance of an act in the course of his employment and such negligence is the proximate cause of the death of a third person, the principal, or master, is liable in damages without any showing of negligence on the part of the principal, himself.

Branch v. Dempsey (1965)

North Carolina statute also provides that if the registration of a vehicle involved in a car accident is in the employer’s name, this registration is prima facie evidence that the vehicle is being operated under the control of the employer and within the scope of the driver’s employment. G.S. 20-71.1 states that

(a)    In all actions to recover damages for injury to the person or to property or for the death of a person, arising out of an accident or collision involving a motor vehicle, proof of ownership of such motor vehicle at the time of such accident or collision shall be prima facie evidence that said motor vehicle was being operated and used with the authority, consent, and knowledge of the owner in the very ransaction out of which said injury or cause of action arose.

(b)    Proof of the registration of a motor vehicle in the name of any person, firm, or corporation, shall for the purpose of any such action, be prima facie evidence of ownership and that such motor vehicle was then being operated by and under the control of a person for whose conduct the owner was legally responsible, for the owner's benefit, and within the course and scope of his employment.

The rationale behind the statute is that the agency relationship can be difficult for a plaintiff to prove since he will not necessarily have the knowledge required to establish this relationship. The North Carolina Supreme Court has explained that

This statute creates no presumption and gives rise to no inference as to the existence of any agency relation before the operation of the vehicle begins or after it stops. It makes no reference to any authority of the driver to affect the owner's liability to other persons otherwise than by the driver's conduct in the operation and control of the vehicle.

Once the plaintiff introduces the registration into evidence under the statute, the defendant can then present evidence to rebut the prima facie evidence of the registration as agency liability. The North Carolina Supreme Court explained in the 1985 case DeArmon v. B. Mears Corp. that

if plaintiff relies solely upon the statute, presenting no other evidence of agency, and defendant presents positive, contradicting evidence which, if believed, establishes the non-existence of an agency relationship between owner and operator, defendant is entitled to a peremptory instruction on the agency issue, or in a non-jury hearing, to a conclusion, based on proper findings, that no agency relationship exists.

If the defendant presents no rebuttal evidence, then the registration is sufficient to show that the employer is liable for any negligence of the driver. But even if the defendant presents no rebuttal evidence, the court is not required to find that an agency relationship existed. The Court explained in DeArmon that “[t]he statute makes out a prima facie case which, nothing else appearing, permits but does not compel a finding for plaintiff on the issue of agency.”

Looking at the facts from the news report, we might assume that the registration for the dump truck would be in the employer’s name. Under G.S 20-71.1, this registration could be offered as prima facie evidence that the dump truck “was then being operated by and under the control of a person for whose conduct the owner was legally responsible, for the owner's benefit, and within the course and scope of his employment.” The prima facie evidence would permit, but not compel, a finding of an agency relationship between the driver and the employer, even if the defendant/employer presented no rebuttal evidence.

However, given the facts reported in the news, the employer would presumably want to present evidence showing that the dump truck was not being driven in the course of the driver’s employment. In fact, the driver was no longer employed by the employer at the time he was driving the dump truck since the news reports that the stealing of the dump truck was prompted by the man’s firing. Furthermore, even if he had still been employed by the employer, the report that the man stole the dump truck and used it as a get-away vehicle after committing robbery would indicate that the operation was clearly outside the scope of his employment, and not “under the control” of the employer.

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