Liability Risk for Government Fleet Organizations Under Current Law

Most people no longer bat an eye when hearing about multimillion dollar damage awards to punish companies for an employee’s negligent acts. However, what are the liability concerns for a public sector fleet manager?

Of all the many issues for today’s fleet manager, negligence bears the most risk, particularly in the case of the corporate fleet manager. For example, what if, in the eyes of a court of law, the acts of the fleet manager or fleet department are not consistent with the standards in the fleet industry? Under today’s legal system, the corporation may be held liable for negligence under civil law. In certain instances, even the corporate fleet manager could be held liable under both criminal and civil bodies of law.

What about the government fleet manager? Does the doctrine of sovereign immunity shield governments from tort liability, and to what extent could a government fleet manager be individually sued or separately sued in a civil suit? Moreover, what rights are due to persons suffering losses as a result of the negligence of government employees?

The purpose of this article is to answer these questions and help federal, state, municipal, and local government fleet managers understand what liabilities they face resulting from the negligence of their employees. The basics of tort law are explained to provide government fleet managers an understanding as to how various immunity laws differ within various government jurisdictions.

What is Tort Law?

Before discussing liability for the government fleet professional, a basic background in tort law is helpful.

A “tort” is a civil wrong. West’s Encyclopedia of American Law defines “tort law” as’a body of rights, obligations, and remedies that is applied by courts in civil proceedings to provide relief for persons who have suffered harm from the acts of others.”

Negligence, the most common tort, has the most risk for fleet managers since negligence awards can be very large and fleet managers deal with a subject that is inherently dangerous – the operation of a motor vehicle.

Negligence is based on a duty of care. When one engages in any activity, that person is under a legal duty to act as an ordinary, prudent, reasonable ­person would act. It should be remembered that negligence law is, at its base, a way to spread risk fairly. So it is logical that courts tend to stretch the scope of ­negligence liability to cover innocent injured parties when a defendant is ­negligent.

The applicable standard of care is the reasonable person standard of ordinary prudence under similar circumstances. For fleet professionals, it is judged as what the reasonable, prudent fleet professional in the field of fleet management would do under similar circumstances.

Generally, for an organization to assume negligence liability for the acts of the fleet or fleet department, the court must find the fleet organization’s behavior was not consistent with the standards in the fleet industry. As an example, if a driver is involved in a crash, and the other party claims the driver was not competent to operate the vehicle and the organization was negligent in hiring the driver, the standard of care would be whether the fleet department (or other responsible organization) properly checked driver motor vehicle records, had reasonable safety programs, had appropriate and current driver policies and procedures, etc., consistent with other similar fleet organizations in its geographic territory.

The employer can be held liable for negligence either directly due to the employer’s negligence (e.g., negligent entrustment, negligent hiring, negligent supervision, negligent training) or under the doctrine of respondeat superior (vicarious liability). The Restatement of the Law – Agency Third in Section 2.04 defines respondeat superior as follows: “An employer is subject to liability for torts committed by employees while acting within the scope of their employment.”

The negligence or fault of the employer is not an element of the respondeat superior claim. To this end, if the employee has no liability, then the employer can have no vicarious liability.

What is Sovereign Immunity?

The doctrine of sovereign immunity has its roots in English common law, adopted at the founding of the United States. Sovereign immunity in England was based on the doctrine of the “divine right of kings” and that the king “could do no wrong.” As English law evolved, it became established that the king could not be sued in his own courts.

The federal government and new states of the United States adopted the English doctrine of sovereign immunity, holding that the federal government or states are not liable in tort without their express consent. The famous Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes said in Kawananakoa v. Polyblank (205 U.S. 349, 353, [1907]), “[a] sovereign is exempt from suit, not because of any formal conception or obsolete theory, but on the logical and practical ground that there can be no legal right against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends.”

The doctrine of sovereign immunity shielded governments in the U.S. from tort liability until relatively recently. Generally, the only way for a victim of government negligence to be compensated was for Congress or a state legislature to pass an individual act compensating the victim. However, beginning in the 20th century, the trend of tort law was to compensate the victims of tort liability by enterprise acts and distribute their losses among the beneficiaries of the enterprise. This trend ran directly into the accepted doctrine of sovereign immunity. Persons suffering losses due to the negligence of government employees generally were left without a remedy.

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