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AN EMPLOYER MAY BE LIABLE FOR NEGLIGENT ENTRUSTMENT DESPITE A CLEAN PRE-EMPLOYMENT BACKGROUND CHECK ON THE EMPLOYEE

Posted by H. Lee Pruett

In Cullara v. Building & Earth Sciences, Inc., Case No. A16A1735 (Ga. Ct. App., Dec. 8, 2016), the Georgia Court of Appeals seems to raise as many questions as it answers concerning an employer’s duty to investigate an employee before entrusting the employee with a company vehicle. In this case, a prospective employee at Building & Earth Sciences (“BES”) stated in his application that his criminal history consisted of only a prior conviction for possession of cocaine. BES did a background check on the employee, including his employment history, credit history, Social Security information, criminal history, and motor vehicle record. His driving record was clean, and the federal criminal history showed no convictions. One Saturday, a few months after the employee was hired, his supervisor allowed him to borrow a company truck to move a personal item to the employee’s new home. Several beers later, the employee collided with Plaintiff. The employee pled guilty to DUI.

The ensuing lawsuit included a claim against BES for negligent entrustment. In his deposition, the employee gave inconsistent testimony concerning an interview he had with BES prior to being hired. He testified again and again that he could not remember whether he told GES in the interview anything about his criminal history other than the cocaine conviction and a DUI conviction in 2002. He did have several prior DUI convictions, however, and in other parts of his deposition, he testified that he told the GES interviewers about all of his criminal history, including the prior DUIs. The trial court granted BES’s Motion for Summary Judgment, based on a finding that the employee reported only the prior cocaine conviction and the one prior DUI, and that such evidence was insufficient to support a claim of negligent entrustment. The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling the trial court improperly failed to consider the contrary evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the non-movant. The Court also rejected BES’s argument that an employer could rely solely on an investigation into an employee’s criminal history and driving record.

Given the conflicting evidence concerning the employer’s knowledge of the employee’s habitual recklessness, the Court’s decision is not surprising. The opinion, however, raises other unanswered questions. First, although the plaintiff also argued the trial court “failed to consider whether BES voluntarily assumed a duty to investigate the former employee’s driving background,” the Court reversed summary judgment only on the basis that there was an issue of fact concerning the employer’s knowledge of the multiple prior DUI convictions. The Court discussed neither the duty to investigate nor the sufficiency of any such investigation. The Court did give hints that the employer’s investigation fell short, however, pointing out the motor vehicle report “searched only for violations in the preceding three years,” and by dropping a footnote that said, while the employer conducted a federal criminal search on the employee, “[t]here is no explanation why BES did not order a state criminal background report.” Second, the Court leaves unexplained its statement that “the issue is whether BES knew or should have known that [the employee] was a high risk driver.” (Emphasis added.) This statement flatly contradicts established law and the Court’s own prior statement in the same case that to prove negligent entrustment, the plaintiff must show that the vehicle owner entrusted the vehicle to another “with actual knowledge that the driver is incompetent or habitually reckless.” (Emphasis added.) Can it be assumed that the Court’s inclusion of constructive knowledge is an inadvertent misstatement of the law on negligent entrustment, or is the Court attempting to establish an employer’s duty to investigate potential employees’ driving records?

What should business owners do before allowing employees to drive company vehicles? If you do a background check, do a thorough job. Get both the federal and state criminal records, and get a seven-year motor vehicle record, not just a three-year. Document any pre-hire interviews. You will not only increase your chances of getting summary judgment in claims of negligent entrustment, you will potentially keep an unsafe driver off the roads.