Sheffer v. Carolina Forge Co.

Decision Date25 June 2013
Docket NumberNo. 109,199.,109,199.
Citation306 P.3d 544
PartiesCharles SHEFFER; Jennifer Sheffer; and J.S., a minor by and through his parents and next friends, Charles Sheffer and Jennifer Sheffer, Plaintiffs–Appellants, v. CAROLINA FORGE COMPANY, L.L.C., Defendant–Appellee.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

ON APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF OTTAWA COUNTY, STATE OF OKLAHOMA, HONORABLE ROBERT G. HANEY

¶ 0 Charles Sheffer, Jennifer Sheffer, and their minor son, J.S., were injured when their 18–wheeler tractor trailer collided with a rental vehicle leased to William Garris and driven by David Billups, both employees of Carolina Forge Company, L.L.C. Plaintiffs sued Carolina Forge on theories of respondeat superior and negligent entrustment. The trial court granted summary judgment to Carolina Forge, finding as a matter of law that Carolina Forge was not liable for its employees' actions under a theory of respondeat superior and did not negligently entrust the rental vehicle to its employees. Upon review of the record, we find reasonable minds could differ on the questions of whether employees of Carolina Forge were in the course and scope of their employment at the time of the accident and whether Carolina Forge negligently entrusted the rental vehicle to its employees. As such, the trial court improperly granted summary judgment to Carolina Forge.

TRIAL COURT'S ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT IS REVERSED; CAUSE REMANDED FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS CONSISTENT WITH TODAY'S PRONOUNCEMENT

Ed Hershewe, Joplin, Missouri, Attorney for PlaintiffsAppellants.

Trevor Hughes & J. Christopher Davis, Johnson & Jones P.C., Tulsa, Oklahoma, Attorneys for PlaintiffsAppellants.

Richard L. Yohn, McAlester, Oklahoma, Attorney for PlaintiffsAppellants.

F. Thomas Cordell, Jr., Rochette Wurth, Ryan L. Dean, Frailey, Chaffin, Cordell, Perryman, Sterkel, McCalla & Brown L.L.P., Chickasha, Oklahoma, Attorneys for DefendantAppellee Carolina Forge Company, L.L.C.

GURICH, J.

Facts & Procedural History

¶ 1 On August 24, 2006, William Garris III and David Billups flew from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Joplin, Missouri, on a business trip for their employer, Carolina Forge Company, L.L.C. Garris was the quality manager for Carolina Forge, and Billups was a customer service representative. The trip was scheduled to take place from August 24, 2006, to August 27, 2006, in Joplin, Missouri. Normally, William Casella, the corporate representative and plant manager for Carolina Forge, accompanied Garris to Joplin to call on customer F.A.G. Bearings. But Mr. Casella had another commitment, so Billups accompanied Garris on this particular trip. The primary purpose of the trip was to participate in a golf outing at the invitation of F.A.G. Bearings.

¶ 2 Carolina Forge paid for Garris and Billups' airline tickets and rental car in advance of the trip.1 Carolina Forge also gave Garris and Billups $600.00 cash to pay for expenses incurred during the trip. Helen Mixon, human resource administrator for Carolina Forge, testified in her deposition that the $600.00 was intended to pay for entertaining customers and for gas in the rental car. Carolina Forge also reimbursed employees for additional out of pocket expenses during business trips, including meals, snacks, and alcoholic beverages.

¶ 3 Garris and Billups arrived in Joplin on the evening of August 24, 2006, and checked into their hotel. On the morning of August 25, 2006, another employee of Carolina Forge met Garris and Billups at a Bob Evans Restaurant in Joplin, which was adjacent to their hotel, before visiting the F.A.G. Bearings headquarters. Next, Garris and Billups arrived at the customer's facility, where they took a tour and then delivered a presentation to company representatives.

¶ 4 Following the presentation, Garris and Billups toured another portion of the facility. Garris and Billups then took three F.A.G. Bearings representatives to lunch at the Rib Crib in Joplin. After lunch, Garris and Billups went back to their hotel rooms to change clothes and then met F.A.G. Bearings representatives for golf at the Briarbrook Golf Course just outside Joplin.

¶ 5 After playing golf, Garris and Billups went back to their hotel, stopping on the way to purchase toiletries and other necessities. Garris and Billups then had dinner at Timberline Steakhouse in Joplin. No F.A.G. Bearings representatives joined Garris and Billups for dinner at the Timberline Steakhouse. After dinner, Garris and Billups went to the Buffalo Run Casino. No representatives from F.A.G. Bearings accompanied Garris and Billups to the casino. The Buffalo Run Casino, located in Miami, Oklahoma, is approximately 30 miles west of the Timberline Steakhouse in Joplin, Missouri.

¶ 6 According to Garris' affidavit, upon arriving at the casino, Garris and Billups went “separate ways, rarely speaking with one another.” 2 Garris' affidavit states he “participated in activities associated with the casino, using [his] own money.” 3 After spending several hours at the casino, Garris and Billups decided to return to their hotel. Upon leaving the casino, Billups drove the rental car, which was rented in the name of the passenger, William Garris.

¶ 7 Billups and Garris intended to return to Joplin traveling on Interstate Highway 44. However, while leaving Miami, Billups missed the eastbound ramp which would have taken them back to Joplin and instead drove west on Interstate Highway 44 toward Tulsa. Billups turned around in a lane barricade opening.4 Billups' vehicle collided with Plaintiffs' vehicle, an 18–wheeler tractor trailer, resulting in injuries to all three passengers.5

¶ 8 Plaintiffs filed suit in the District Court of Ottawa County against Carolina Forge, alleging negligence under the doctrines of respondeat superior and negligent entrustment.6 Carolina Forge moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, finding Garris and Billups were not in the course and scope of their employment at the time of the accident and Carolina Forge did not negligently entrust the rental vehicle to its employees.

¶ 9 Plaintiffs appealed the trial court's Journal Entry granting summary judgment to Carolina Forge, filing a Petition in Error on February 18, 2011. This Court retained the case. We find reasonable minds could differ on the questions of whether employees of Carolina Forge were in the course and scope of their employment at the time of the accident and whether Carolina Forge negligently entrusted the rental vehicle to its employees.

Standard of Review

¶ 10 An order sustaining summary judgment in favor of a litigant presents solely a legal matter. Feightner v. Bank of Okla., N.A., 2003 OK 20, ¶ 2, 65 P.3d 624, 626. Questions of law mandate a de novo standard of review, which affords this Court with plenary, independent, and non-deferential authority to examine the issues presented. Martin v. Aramark Servs., Inc., 2004 OK 38, ¶ 4, 92 P.3d 96, 97.

¶ 11 When examining an order sustaining summary judgment, this Court must determine whether the record reveals disputed material facts. Cranford v. Bartlett, 2001 OK 47, ¶ 3, 25 P.3d 918, 920. Even if basic facts are undisputed, motions for summary judgment should be denied, if from the evidence, reasonable persons might reach different inferences or conclusions from the undisputed facts. Phelps v. Hotel Mgmt. Inc., 1996 OK 114, ¶¶ 6–7, 925 P.2d 891, 893. All facts and inferences must be viewed in a light most favorable to the party opposing summary adjudication. Estate of Crowell v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Cnty. of Cleveland, 2010 OK 5, ¶ 22, 237 P.3d 134, 142.

Negligent Entrustment

¶ 12 Negligent entrustment of an automobile occurs when the automobile is supplied, directly or through a third person, for the use of another whom the supplier knows, or should know, because of youth, inexperience, or otherwise, is likely to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of bodily harm to others, with liability for the harm caused thereby. Green v. Harris, 2003 OK 55, n. 5, 70 P.3d 866, 868 n. 5.See also Shoemake v. Stich, 1975 OK 55, ¶ 13, 534 P.2d 667, 669–70. This Court has long held that intoxication and the “propensity for becoming intoxicated” can result in liability for the supplier of the automobile if the supplier knows or has reason to know of such intoxication or propensity for becoming intoxicated.7Nat'l Trailer Convoy, Inc. v. Saul, 1962 OK 181, ¶ 10, 375 P.2d 922, 928–29;Shoemake, 1975 OK 55, ¶ 12, 534 P.2d at 669–70.

¶ 13 The record indicates Carolina Forge reserved and paid for the rental car for Garris and Billups for this particular business trip to Joplin. 8 Ms. Mixon testified the airline tickets and the rental car were purchased by the company before the men left for the trip.9 The record also indicates the purpose of this particular business trip to Joplin was to entertain a customer of Carolina Forge.10 Carolina Forge representatives had participated in this particular golf outing in previous years and expected its representatives to entertain its customers on business trips such as this one.11 Entertainment often included taking customers out for drinks.12 In fact, Carolina Forge encouraged such behavior on all business trips through its limitless reimbursement policy. 13 Carolina Forge employees, including Garris, had been reimbursed by Carolina Forge for numerous alcoholic beverages they consumed on prior business trips. Receipts provided by Carolina Forge showed past reimbursements included alcoholic beverages at lunch, in the airport, in the afternoon and evening, at restaurants, at golf outings, and at bars and other establishments such as the “Thirsty Pony.” 14 Employees of Carolina Forge were permitted to include alcoholic beverage expenses on their expense itemization reports for reimbursement by Carolina Forge regardless of whether the drinks were with customers.15

¶ 14 Although Carolina Forge reimbursed employees for all money spent on alcoholic beverages, Carolina Forge...

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