Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, employers are vicariously liable for torts committed by employees while acting within the scope of their employment. Whether an employee is acting within the scope of her employment is ordinarily a question of fact for a jury. However, when the employee's activity is so clearly within or outside the scope of employment that reasonable minds cannot differ, the court may decide the issue as a matter of law.
Two motorcyclists were injured when a security guard collided into them while traveling on her unscheduled break from her assigned gate to a cafe to buy lunch. A case was filed against the security guard and her employer. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the employee and employer, which held that the employer was not liable for negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior for the actions of the employee because she was acting outside the scope of her employment at the time of the automobile accident injuring the motorcyclists. The case was elevated on appeal to the Supreme Court of Utah.
Was summary judgment proper?
The court reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. It found that reasonable minds could differ as to all three criteria of the determination of whether the employee was acting within or outside the scope of her employment under the doctrine of respondeat superior. First, there was a dispute whether the employee was about the employer's business and duties assigned by the employer as opposed to being wholly involved in a personal endeavor when traveling to the cafe because reasonable minds could differ whether the employer tacitly sanctioned, or at least contemplated, that its guards would obtain meals from the cafe on their unscheduled breaks. Second, reasonable minds could differ whether the employee's trip to the cafe fell substantially within the ordinary boundaries of her employment. Third, reasonable minds could differ as to whether the employee's trip to the café was motivated, at least in part, by the purpose of serving the employer's interest.