Quynn v. Hulsey, 110220 GASC, S19G1612

Docket Nº:S19G1612
Opinion Judge:ELLINGTON, JUSTICE.
Party Name:QUYNN v. HULSEY et al.
Judge Panel:except Bethel, J., who concurs in judgment only, and McMillian, J., who dissents. Warren, J., not participating. McMillian, Justice, dissenting.
Case Date:November 02, 2020
Court:Supreme Court of Georgia

QUYNN

v.

HULSEY et al.

No. S19G1612

Supreme Court of Georgia

November 2, 2020

ELLINGTON, JUSTICE.

We granted certiorari in this wrongful death and personal injury case to consider whether the Court of Appeals erred by holding that TriEst Ag Group, Inc., the employer of the driver whose truck struck and killed the decedent, was entitled to summary judgment on the estate's claims of negligent entrustment, hiring, training, and supervision because TriEst admitted the applicability of respondeat superior and the estate was not entitled to punitive damages. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that OCGA § 51-12-33, also known as the apportionment statute, has abrogated the decisional law rule on which the Court of Appeals relied in affirming the trial court's grant of summary judgment. Accordingly, we reverse.

The record shows that Brandon Lanier was struck and killed by a truck driven by Riley Hulsey and owned by Hulsey's employer, TriEst, while Lanier was attempting to cross a street in Tifton. Nancy Quynn, as administrator of Lanier's estate, brought this wrongful death and personal injury action against Hulsey and TriEst. The trial court granted partial summary judgment to TriEst on Quynn's claims for punitive damages and for negligent entrustment, hiring, training, and supervision. After a trial on Quynn's remaining negligence claims, the jury found Hulsey and TriEst 50 percent at fault and Lanier 50 percent at fault, and the trial court entered judgment on the verdict. Quynn was therefore precluded from recovering damages on behalf of Lanier's estate. See OCGA § 51-12-33 (g) ("[T]he plaintiff shall not be entitled to receive any damages if the plaintiff is 50 percent or more responsible for the injury or damages claimed.").

Quynn appealed to the Court of Appeals and contended, among other things, that the trial court erred in granting partial summary judgment to TriEst on its claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, training and supervision. In an unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed, relying on that court's precedent to hold that TriEst was entitled to partial summary judgment [b]ecause TriEst admitted the applicability of respondeat superior, and the trial court granted summary judgment to TriEst on the estate's punitive damages claim against TriEst, 1 TriEst was entitled to summary judgment on the estate's negligent entrustment, hiring, training and supervision claims[.]

The court rejected Quynn's argument that the apportionment statute required the trier of fact to consider the fault of all persons who contributed to the injury and so superseded the decisional law rule on which the trial court relied.

The decisional law rule at issue, which we will refer to as the "Respondeat Superior Rule," provides: [I]f a defendant employer concedes that it will be vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior2 if its employee is found negligent, the employer is entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff's claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention, unless the plaintiff has also brought a valid claim for punitive damages against the employer for its own independent negligence.

Hosp. Auth. of Valdosta v. Fender, 342 Ga.App. 13, 21 (2) (802 S.E.2d 346) (2017) (citations omitted). The Respondeat Superior Rule was first adopted by the Court of Appeals in Willis v. Hill, 116 Ga.App. 848, 853-868 (5) (b) (159 S.E.2d 145) (1967), reversed on other grounds, 224 Ga. 263 (161 S.E.2d 281) (1968). That court has explained as a basis for the rule that because "the employer would be liable for the employee's negligence under respondeat superior, allowing claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, [training] and retention would not entitle the plaintiff to a greater recovery, but would merely serve to prejudice the employer." MasTec North Am. v. Wilson, 325 Ga.App. 863, 865 (755 S.E.2d 257) (2014) (citations and punctuation omitted).3

To assess whether the Respondeat Superior Rule has been abrogated by the apportionment statute, we first consider the text of OCGA § 51-12-33, which was enacted in its current form in 2005. See Ga. L. 2005, p. 1, § 12. In the construction of "a statute, we afford the text its plain and ordinary meaning, viewed in the context in which it appears, and read in its most natural and reasonable way." Carpenter v. McMann, 304 Ga. 209, 210 (817 S.E.2d 686) (2018) (citation and punctuation omitted).

OCGA § 51-12-33 provides, in pertinent part: a) Where an action is brought against one or more persons for injury to person or property and the plaintiff is to some degree responsible for the injury or damages claimed, the trier of fact, in its determination of the total amount of damages to be awarded, if any, shall determine the percentage of fault of the plaintiff and the judge shall reduce the amount of damages otherwise awarded to the plaintiff in proportion to his or her percentage of fault.

(b) Where an action is brought against more than one person for injury to person or property, the trier of fact, in its determination of the total amount of damages to be awarded, if any, shall after a reduction of damages pursuant to subsection (a) of this Code section, if any, apportion its award of damages among the persons who are liable according to the percentage of fault of each person. Damages apportioned by the trier of fact as provided in this Code section shall be the liability of each person against whom they are awarded, shall not be a joint liability among the persons liable, and shall not be subject to any right of contribution.

(c) In assessing percentages of fault, the trier of fact shall consider the fault of all persons or entities who contributed to the alleged injury or damages, regardless of whether the person or entity was, or could have been, named as a party to the suit.4

These provisions require that "once liability has been established and the damages sustained by the plaintiff have been calculated, the trier of fact must then assess the relative fault of all those who contributed to the plaintiff's injury-including the plaintiff himself-and apportion the damages based on this assessment of relative fault." Martin v. Six Flags Over Georgia II, L.P., 301 Ga. 323, 338 (III) (801 S.E.2d 24) (2017) (citation omitted).

Where "an action is brought against more than one person for injury to person or property," OCGA 51-12-33 (b) directs that the jury apportion its damage award among persons who are liable according to the percentage of their fault. "Fault," for purposes of OCGA § 51-12-33 (b), "refers to a breach of a legal duty that a defendant owes with respect to a plaintiff that is a proximate cause of the injury for which the plaintiff now seeks to recover damages." Zaldivar v. Prickett, 297 Ga. 589, 595 (1) (774 S.E.2d 688) (2015).

The claims that are subject to summary judgment based on the Respondeat Superior Rule constitute claims that an employer-defendant breached a legal duty owed to the plaintiff that proximately caused the plaintiff's injury. In the case of negligent entrustment of a vehicle by an employer to an employee, liability is predicated "on a negligent act of the owner in lending his vehicle to another to drive, with actual knowledge that the driver is incompetent or habitually reckless." CGL Facility Mgmt. v. Wiley, 328 Ga.App. 727, 731 (2) (b) (760 S.E.2d 251) (2014) (citation and punctuation omitted). Similarly, claims for negligent hiring, training, supervision, and retention are based on the alleged negligent acts of the employer. See, e. g., Munroe v. Universal Health Svcs., Inc., 277 Ga. 861, 863 (1) (596 S.E.2d 604) (2004); Leo v. Waffle House, Inc., 298 Ga.App. 838, 841 (2) (681 S.E.2d 258) (2009).

Thus, the claims encompassed by the Respondeat Superior Rule are claims that the employer is at "fault" within the meaning of the apportionment statute. Adherence to the Respondeat Superior Rule would preclude the jury from apportioning fault to the employer for negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention. Any allocation of relative fault among those persons at fault, which may include the plaintiff, could differ if one person's fault was excluded from consideration.5 It follows that the Respondeat Superior Rule is inconsistent with the plain language of the apportionment statute. "[A]s long as legislation does not violate the Constitution, when the Legislature says something clearly - or even just implies it - statutes trump cases." Couch v. Red Roof Inns, Inc., 291 Ga. 359, 364 (729 S.E.2d 378) (2012). See also Johns v. Suzuki Motor of Am., Inc., ____Ga ____ (Case No. S19G1478, decided Oct. 19, 2020) (holding that OCGA § 51-12-33 supplanted pre-2005 decisional law prohibiting comparative negligence in strict product liability claims).

Hulsey and TriEst contend that removing the Respondeat Superior Rule would undermine Georgia's comparative negligence doctrine. They argue that where an employer admits agency and scope of employment, the plaintiff may recover all the damages to which she is entitled by showing that the employee was negligent and that the employee was more negligent than the plaintiff. See OCGA § 51-12-33 (g). They maintain that evidence necessary to show the employer's negligence, such as its knowledge of its employee's prior misconduct, is not relevant to whether its employee was negligent and that Quynn's claims against TriEst are no more than an attempt to increase the jury damage award through introduction of inflammatory evidence.

We are not persuaded by these arguments. Evidence tending to establish the employer's fault would be of consequence to the determination of the action as the jury is required to...

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