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LeClairRyan: Trial Court Dismisses Negligent Hiring, Retention Claims Against Motor Carrier

A New Hampshire trial court recently ruled that negligent hiring and retention claims asserted against a motor carrier on behalf of persons seriously injured in a multi-vehicle accident are redundant of the motor carrier's vicarious liability and thus subject to dismissal. The ruling in Milton, et al. v. Hull, et al. (Hillsborough Superior Court, Northern District; Docket No. 216-2012-CV-857) is significant because prior to this decision there was no clear precedent in the Granite State on this important motor carrier and insurer issue.

The case arises out of an accident on I-95 in New Hampshire involving two passenger vehicles and a tractor trailer. The two front seat occupants of a southbound vehicle were seriously and permanently injured, and the back seat passenger was killed. Ironically, the only occupant of the vehicle wearing a seat belt died in the crash.

The driver and front seat passenger alleged that the motor carrier was vicariously liable, under respondeat superior principles, for their injuries because of the truck driver's alleged negligent operation of his tractor trailer. However, during discovery, plaintiffs learned certain details of the truck driver's past that became the basis of plaintiffs' contention that the motor carrier was negligent in hiring and retaining the truck driver. Plaintiffs thereafter sought to amend their writ to assert negligent hiring and retention claims against the motor carrier. The addition of these direct claims to the case, along with evidence of the truck driver's disputed, yet extremely unfavorable, personal history would have changed the case from a very defensible case on liability to a very dangerous case to try.

The trucking company's counsel opposed the motion to amend, citing, among other things, decisions from other jurisdictions holding that once an employer admits vicarious liability for the negligence of the driver, the negligent hiring and retention claims are redundant of the motor carrier's vicarious liability and, therefore, superfluous. The issue was complicated by the need to distinguish existing precedent from the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which had permitted a plaintiff to bring claims for both respondeat superior and negligent entrustment against the employer of a driver whose vehicle struck a plaintiff.

Some jurisdictions recognize an exception to the majority rule that negligent entrustment is redundant of a claim for vicarious liability where there is a claim for punitive damages. However, since New Hampshire prohibits punitive damages by statute, this fairly well-recognized exception was unavailing to plaintiffs.

While this new decision is from a trial court rather than an appellate court, it nonetheless provides persuasive authority for motor carriers defending tort claims in New Hampshire. By admitting the truck driver was the trucking company's agent/employee acting in the scope of that employment at the time of the accident, trucking companies faced with a New Hampshire claim should be able to avoid having to defend the often problematic and sometimes game-changing negligent hiring, supervision, entrustment and/or retention claims that have become common in recent years. 

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