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Gunter v. Estate of Armstrong

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

August 12, 2019

ANGELA M. GUNTER
v.
ESTATE OF JAIME B. ARMSTRONG ET AL.

          Session May 20, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Greene County No. CC-2017-CV-144 Beth Boniface, Judge

         This appeal presents the issue of whether an employer can be held liable for the tortious harm its employee inflicted on a third party during an automobile accident when that accident occurred after the employee departed her workplace but prior to the end of her work shift. The trial court entered an order granting summary judgment in favor of the employer. The third-party plaintiff has appealed. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          Thomas L. Kilday, Greeneville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Angela M. Gunter.

          T. Kenan Smith, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Envision, Inc.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Charles D. Susano, Jr., J., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On March 22, 2017, Angela M. Gunter filed a complaint in the Greene County Circuit Court ("trial court") against the Estate of Jaime B. Armstrong ("the Estate"), Brian J. Armstrong, and Envision, Inc. ("Envision"). Ms. Gunter alleged that on August 20, 2016, while she was driving her vehicle on Jones Bridge Road in Greene County, Tennessee, a vehicle in the oncoming lane being driven by Jaime Armstrong ("Decedent") suddenly crossed the center of the roadway, causing a head-on collision with Ms. Gunter's vehicle. According to Ms. Gunter, although the vehicle being driven by Decedent was titled to Decedent and her husband, Brian Armstrong, Decedent was engaged within the course and scope of her employment with Envision at the time of the crash. Ms. Gunter alleged that she was severely and permanently injured by Decedent's negligence and that such negligence could be attributed to Mr. Armstrong, based on the family purpose doctrine, and Envision, based on the employment relationship.

         Envision filed an answer to the complaint on April 3, 2017, admitting that Decedent had been employed with Envision at the time of the accident but denying that she was engaged within the course and scope of her employment when the accident occurred. Envision accordingly denied any liability toward Ms. Gunter. Mr. Armstrong and the Estate filed an Answer on April 21, 2017, also denying liability.

         On January 26, 2018, Ms. Gunter filed a motion seeking to amend her complaint to add claims against Envision of negligent hiring and supervision. Ms. Gunter asserted that Decedent had a twenty-year history of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as a history of psychiatric hospitalizations. Ms. Gunter therefore alleged that Envision was negligent in failing to properly screen Decedent before employment. Further alleged was negligence on the part of Envision for failing to properly supervise Decedent, such that Decedent was tired, overworked, and over-medicated at the time of the accident. The trial court granted permission allowing the amendment to the complaint. In response, Envision filed a subsequent answer wherein it continued to deny liability.

         On February 23, 2018, Envision filed a motion for summary judgment, accompanied by a statement of undisputed material facts. In its statement of facts, Envision outlined that it was engaged in the business of providing in-home care for individuals with developmental delays and health issues and that Envision's employees would complete such tasks as providing transportation for clients to attend appointments, running errands, and providing job coaching. For support, Envision attached an affidavit from Decedent's supervisor, Donna Simerly, who stated that Decedent had passed a drug test and background check before her employment and always presented a well-kept and professional appearance. Ms. Simerly further related that the Envision employees who interacted with Decedent on a regular basis had not reported any concerns about Decedent's behavior or job performance. According to Ms. Simerly, Envision was a drug-free workplace, and Decedent was aware of this policy.

         Ms. Simerly explained that on the morning of the accident, Decedent was scheduled to work until 8:00 a.m. but that she left the workplace at 7:30 a.m. without the permission of Ms. Simerly. According to Envision's statement of facts, the employee who relieved Decedent from her shift that morning testified that Decedent seemed tired but was steady on her feet and did not appear intoxicated. Envision's statement of facts further provided that Decedent's husband and mother claimed they had not been aware of Decedent's use of drugs. Envision submitted additional affidavits and deposition excerpts in support of its summary judgment motion.

         Ms. Gunter filed a response in opposition to the motion for summary judgment, disputing the facts as presented by Envision. Ms. Gunter alleged, inter alia, that the accident occurred at a time when Decedent was "on call, on the clock, being paid by Envision"; that it was a regular practice for Envision employees to leave the workplace to run errands while remaining on the clock; and that Decedent was subject to being recalled to the workplace if needed or directed elsewhere for work activities. Ms. Gunter further asserted that Envision had failed to properly screen Decedent's background or to require her to submit to regular drug tests. Ms. Gunter attached various deposition excerpts, affidavits, and other documents to her response, as well as a statement of "additional facts creating a genuine issue for trial."

         The trial court conducted a hearing regarding Envision's motion for summary judgment on April 30, 2018, and entered a judgment granting the motion on July 18, 2018. The court certified the judgment as final pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 54.02. The court found as follows, in pertinent part, with regard to Ms. Gunter's claims against Envision:

         A plaintiff must show the following elements to invoke the doctrine of respondeat superior:

1. The person who caused the injury was an employee;
2. The employee was on the employer's business, and
3. The employee was acting within the scope of his employment when the injury occurred.
* * *
The undisputed facts of the accident show that [Decedent] left her job duties thirty minutes before her shift ended and she was in route to visit her paramour. Even if she was technically "on the clock," there is no connection between getting coffee for her paramour and her responsibilities to her employer, Envision. [Decedent's] departure from Envision's business was marked and decided. Although the undisputed facts show that it was not unusual for employees to leave their shift early if their replacements arrived, the mere fact that Envision would not fire an employee for leaving work early does not bring [Decedent's] acts within the course and scope of her employment.
There was no dual purpose to [Decedent's] travels.
** *
If [Decedent's] travel had been partially motivated by a work obligation, such as taking a client to a doctor's appointment, then there might have been a question of fact to present to the jury. In the case at bar, [Decedent's] employment played no part in creating the reason for travel. She was on a trip motivated by personal desires. Crediting all facts in the Plaintiff's favor, there is insufficient evidence to invoke the doctrine of respondeat superior.
** *
In the case at bar, Gunter argues that [Decedent's] history of drug abuse and suicidal ideations made her unfit to be employed by Envision. Both parties agree that had Envision known of [Decedent's] struggles she would not have been hired. The issue is whether Envision should have done more to investigate her fitness for the job before hiring her. Envision performed a drug test on [Decedent] prior to her employment. The results of the drug screen were negative. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's background check did not list any alcohol or drug-related convictions. [Decedent] had interactions daily with staff and no one perceived any drug use or unusual behavior. There were no complaints to Envision regarding [Decedent's] fitness for the job. The only evidence of possible impairment was on the day of the accident when [Decedent] seemed "over the top tired." There is nothing in the record which would have alerted Envision to current drug use by [Decedent]. The only way Envision would have known about [Decedent's] struggles with illicit substances would have been to request all of her medical records. [Decedent] did not inform Envision of her history of addiction and abuse of drugs. Without cause, employers do not usually receive employees' medical records prior to employment. The only complaint ever made by [Decedent], or those that worked in the home alongside [Decedent], was of too much overtime.
Gunter further argues that if Envision had not employed [Decedent], then she would not have been on the road at the time of the accident. This argument is without merit. If she had finished her shift for her employer, she would not have been at the scene to cause the crash. If she had not been employed with ...

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