It mattered if woman on phone who caused crash was discussing work or personal matters; Employer escapes liability

By Asia Mayfield | Oct 9, 2018

SAN DIEGO (Legal Newsline) – A California court has upheld a lower court's judgment in a personal injury case filed against a court reporting agency.

Judge Raymond Ikola found that defendant Esquire Deposition Solutions could not be held liable for the car accident that caused plaintiff Jessica Ayon’s injuries. Ikola’s opinion was filed on Sept. 21 in 4th District Appellate Court of the State of California, Third Division.  

At issue is the question of Esquire’s liability “under a theory of respondeat superior,” the ruling states.

“'The rule of respondeat superior is familiar and simply stated: an employer is vicariously liable for the torts of its employees committed within the scope of the employment,'” the court cited in its ruling.

In May 2013, Brittini Zuppardo, Esquire’s scheduling manager, crashed into Ayon. At the time of the collision, Zuppardo was on the phone with Michelle Halkett, a court reporter who at the time received 99 percent of her income from Esquire.  

Ayon claims that Zuppardo and Halkett were speaking about work-related subjects right before the accident. Zuppardo and Halkett disagree. They testified that the phone call was about personal topics. Zuppardo told the court that she speaks with Halkett weekly, a statement belied by the evidence.  

“Zuppardo’s cellphone records, however, showed no calls between her and Halkett’s cellphone for the prior six months, and only one text message,” the ruling states

Despite this, the court said Ayon presented no solid evidence that Zuppardo was discussing work when the accident occurred. 

“Plaintiff attacks Zuppardo’s and Halkett’s credibility. But that is not enough, and thus the court correctly granted summary judgment,” the ruling states.

The court noted Esquire already had a policy in place that forbid employees from using their phones for work while driving. 

Ayon filed suit against Esquire and Zuppardo. The trial court granted Esquire’s motion for summary judgment, noting that: “[Plaintiff] has not shown sufficient evidence of a triable issue of fact. It was after hours, [Zuppardo] was not on a work errand but was coming home from a social engagement. The phone call was with a friend [albeit a friend she met at work] talking about personal matters,” the suit states.

Ikola ruled that Esquire can recover costs.

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