In California, employers are generally liable for damage caused by an employee’s accident when that employee uses their personal vehicle for business purposes. The “going and coming” rule excludes liability for the employer if the accident occurs when the employee is commuting to and from work. An employer may be liable, however, for accidents occurring during an employee’s commute when the “vehicle use exception” applies. The “vehicle use exception” applies where (1) the possession and use of the vehicle is required by the employer, or (2) the possession and use of the vehicle provided a benefit to the employer. In either of these two scenarios, the employer compels the employee to submit to the risks inherent with motor travel and should thus share in the liability.

On June 18, 2018, the Court of Appeal in Newland v. County of Los Angeles effectively narrowed the application of the “vehicle use exception.” The Newland court held that the County of Los Angeles could not be held vicariously liable for a motor vehicle accident that occurred when a deputy public defender (Prigo) was driving home from work. The employee attorney regularly needed to drive between various Los Angeles courthouses for hearings, and would frequently use his personal vehicle to visit crime scenes and meet with incarcerated clients. In spite of this, the court held that the two “vehicle use exception” requirements to the “going and coming” rule had not been met.

While the county did not require their deputy public defenders to obtain a personal vehicle to perform their jobs, they required attorneys to have a valid California Class C driver’s license or the ability to use alternative transportation to commute to work. Prigo frequently had to attend hearings at branch courthouses throughout Los Angeles County. There is not a reasonable means of public transportation between the Norwalk Courthouse, where he worked, and the branch courthouses, so he would drive his personal vehicle. In February 2013, Prigo left to go home for the day and stopped at a nearby post office. When turning into the post office, he hit a car and injured the driver.

The trial court ruled that the central issue in the case was whether Prigo was required (either expressly or impliedly) to use his personal vehicle to perform the duties of his job for the county, and the jury found that he did, thus imputing liability to the county. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that there was not enough evidence that Prigo was driving his car within the course and scope of his employment when the accident occurred. As Prigo was commuting home from work when the accident occurred, the “going and coming” rule applied. To defeat that presumption, one of the two prongs of the “vehicle use exception” would have needed to apply: (1) the county required Prigo to use his car to drive to or from work, or (2) the county benefited from Prigo making his car available during the work day. Neither applied in this scenario.

The court ultimately held that even though Prigo used his car throughout the work day, there was no evidence that Prigo was required to drive a personal vehicle to perform his duties. Furthermore, Prigo was always made aware of the dates which he had hearings or meetings at other locations, and he did not need his car with him at all times for unexpected travel. On the date of the accident, he did not have any job duties scheduled for outside his office. Furthermore, there was no evidence that the county received any benefit from Prigo’s use of his car or relied on Prigo’s ownership and use of a car.

In its opinion, the Court of Appeal held that the doctrine of respondeat superior does not render an employer vicariously liable simply because it controls an employee’s actions. Rather, liability attaches to the employer because the employer somehow creates “inevitable risks as a part of doing business.” Given the court’s decision that neither prong of the “vehicle use exceptions” applied, despite Prigo’s heavy and frequent use of his vehicle for job-related duties, liability is less likely to be imputed to employers in the future for tortious conduct occurring during a work commute.