Oaks v. Connors

Decision Date01 September 1994
Docket NumberNo. 113,113
Citation660 A.2d 423,339 Md. 24
PartiesWillie James OAKS et al. v. Anna CONNORS et al. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Charles E. Gallagher, Jr. (Neil J. MacDonald, DeCaro, Doran, Siciliano, Gallagher, Sonntag & DeBlasis, on brief), Lanham, Margaret Fonshell Ward (William J. Jackson, P.C. Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, on brief), Baltimore, for petitioners.

Phillips P. O'Shaughnessy (Phillips P. O'Shaughnessy, P.A., Joseph A. Miklasz and Stacy O'Neil, on brief), Glen Burnie, for respondents.


MURPHY, Chief Judge.

This case involves an employer's liability to third parties for the negligent driving of its employee while en route to the employee's usual place of work in the employee's personal vehicle. We must also determine whether the statutory cap on noneconomic damages, codified as Maryland Code (1974, 1989 Repl.Vol.) § 11-108 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, is to be applied separately to the claim of an injured spouse and a loss of consortium claim by the marital unit. 1


On July 5, 1989, Petitioner Willie James Oaks (Oaks) was on his way to work when he was involved in a motor vehicle accident with a van in which Anna Connors (Connors) was a passenger. 2 Earlier that day, there had been a thunderstorm, which left a substantial amount of water on Maryland Route 176. As Oaks drove through this water at an excessive rate of speed, he lost control of his car, crossed the center line, and hit the vehicle in which Connors was riding. Connors, who was married at the time, was severely injured as a result of the collision, sustaining several fractures to her right hand and arm in addition to serious neurological and psychological damage. She was also rendered incapable of caring for her invalid husband in the same manner as before the accident.

On July 5, Oaks was employed by Giant Food, Inc. (Giant) as an Automated Teller Machine (ATM) Sergeant in its Loss Prevention Department, a position he had held since April 17, 1989. His duties in that capacity varied, sometimes requiring him to stay at the corporation's Jessup facility all day, and other times requiring him to proceed to various Giant stores to stand guard while ATM machines were being serviced. To fulfill this latter task, Giant required Oaks to have a personal vehicle, in good working order, available to use when travel was necessary. Giant did not supply or pay for the vehicle or for its maintenance, fuel, or repair. It also did not specify the type of vehicle to be used or the route to be taken to and from the Jessup facility. 3

Beginning April 17, Oaks reported to Jessup each day to receive his daily work assignment. At the time of the accident he was operating his personal vehicle and was en route from his residence to Jessup. His scheduled hours on July 5 were from 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and the accident occurred at approximately 2:42 p.m. Oaks testified that he was not performing any duties for Giant at the time of the accident, his understanding being that his work day began after he punched in at Jessup.

On April 3, 1990, Respondents Anna and Herbert Connors (collectively, the Connorses) filed a Complaint against Oaks and Giant, alleging that the employee's negligent operation of his motor vehicle caused the accident that injured Anna Connors. Connors sought damages for her individual personal injuries and she and her husband jointly claimed damage to their marital relationship. The case against Giant was based on its alleged respondeat superior liability for Oaks' negligent driving in the course of his employment.

A jury trial was held in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. At the close of the Connorses' presentation of evidence, the court (Goudy, J.) granted Giant's Motion for Judgment pursuant to Rule 2-519, finding that respondeat superior liability did not apply in this case. 4 As to Oaks, at the conclusion of all the evidence, the jury awarded Anna Connors economic damages of $84,200 and noneconomic damages of $350,000; it also awarded the Connorses $130,000 for the noneconomic damage to their marital relationship. Following the verdict, the court reduced the judgment to comply with § 11-108, the cap on noneconomic damages, stating that "the law requires [it] to find the damage to the marital relationship [in this case to be] non-economic and, accordingly, the [Connors] claim must necessarily be reduced by $130,000." To accomplish this end, the court vacated the Connorses' loss of consortium award and reduced it to zero. Judgment was then entered against Oaks in favor of Anna Connors in the amount of $434,200. 5

The Connorses appealed from the judgment in favor of Giant and from the part of the judgment vacating their loss of consortium award. In Connors v. Oaks, 100 Md.App. 525, 642 A.2d 245 (1994), the intermediate appellate court reversed the lower court's judgment for Giant, finding it vicariously liable for Oaks' actions under the theory of respondeat superior, and ordered the reinstatement of the Connorses' loss of consortium award pursuant to its construction of § 11-108, permitting a separate noneconomic damages cap for a consortium claim. We granted certiorari to consider the important issues raised in this case.


The doctrine of respondeat superior, in Maryland, allows an employer to be held vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of its employee when that employee was acting within the scope of the employment relationship. Dhanraj v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 305 Md. 623, 627, 506 A.2d 224 (1986). See also Embrey v. Holly, 293 Md. 128, 134, 442 A.2d 966 (1982); Restatement (Second) of Agency § 219 (1958). We have held that " 'a master is liable for the acts which his servant does with the actual or apparent authority of the master, or which the servant does within the scope of his employment, or which the master ratifies with the knowledge of all the material facts.' " Dhanraj, supra, 305 Md. at 627, 506 A.2d 224 (quoting Globe Indemnity Co. v. Victill Corp., 208 Md. 573, 580, 119 A.2d 423 (1956)). Because "the master holds out his servant as competent and fit to be trusted, ... he in effect warrants his servant's fidelity and good conduct in all matters within the scope of his employment." Globe, supra, 208 Md. at 580, 119 A.2d 423.

This rule has been somewhat modified with respect to the use of automobiles. In Dhanraj, we stated:

"[O]n account of the extensive use of the motor vehicle with its accompanying dangers, the courts have realized that a strict application of the doctrine of respondeat superior in the modern commercial world would result in great injustice.... It is now held by the great weight of authority that a master will not be held responsible for negligent operation of a servant's automobile, even though engaged at the time in furthering the master's business unless the master expressly or impliedly consents to the use of the automobile, and ... had the right to control the servant in its operation, or else the use of the automobile was of such vital importance in furthering the master's business that his control over it might reasonably [be] inferred."

305 Md. at 627-28, 506 A.2d 224 (quoting Henkelmann v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., 180 Md. 591, 599, 26 A.2d 418 (1942)). The "right to control" concept is key to a respondeat superior analysis in the motor vehicle context. The doctrine may only be successfully invoked when an employer has either " 'expressly or impliedly, authorized the [servant] to use his personal vehicle in the execution of his duties, and the employee is in fact engaged in such endeavors at the time of the accident.' " Id. at 628, 506 A.2d 224 (quoting L.M.T. Steel Products v. Peirson, 47 Md.App. 633, 643, 425 A.2d 242, cert. denied, 290 Md. 717 (1981) (emphasis added)). See also Embrey, supra, 293 Md. at 134, 442 A.2d 966 (stating that respondeat superior liability "rests upon the power of control and direction which the superior has over the subordinate"); A. & P. Co. v. Noppenberger, 171 Md. 378, 390-92, 189 A. 434 (1937); Regal Laundry Co. v. A.S. Abell Co., 163 Md. 525, 531-33, 163 A. 845 (1933); Goldsmith v. Chesebrough, 138 Md. 1, 8, 113 A. 285 (1921); Restatement (Second) of Agency § 219 cmt. a (1958) (stating that "[a] master's liability to third persons appears to be an outgrowth of the idea that within the time of service, the master can exercise control over the physical activities of the servant").

Driving to and from work is generally not considered to be within the scope of a servant's employment because getting to work is the employee's own responsibility and ordinarily does not involve advancing the employer's interests. Dhanraj, supra, 305 Md. at 628, 506 A.2d 224. See also Restatement (Second) of Agency § 229 cmt. d, 235 (1958). Accordingly, we have held that "absent special circumstances, an employer will not be vicariously liable for the negligent conduct of his employee occurring while the employee is traveling to or from work." Dhanraj, supra, 305 Md. at 628, 506 A.2d 224.

Giant argues that it should not be liable to the Connorses for Oaks' negligent driving while he was en route to his usual job site in his personal vehicle, even though it required him to have the vehicle available for use during the work day. It contends that the theory of respondeat superior does not apply in this case because Oaks was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. According to Giant, the case law makes clear that employees traveling to or from work in a personal vehicle are acting for their own purposes and, therefore, their employers should not be held liable for their actions during this time.

It is undisputed that while Giant required Oaks to have a vehicle available for use in the execution of his duties, he was not actually performing any of his designated job...

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