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Court rules employer not liable for Yuma-based worker's wreck
Employers are not necessarily liable for the actions of their employees if the workers are involved in accidents while on out-of-town assignments — as was the case with a Texas engineer assigned to a project in Yuma, the Arizona Supreme Court says.
According to an opinion issued Monday, the state high court affirmed the conclusion that energy consulting company Gulf Interstate Engineering was not responsible for the actions of its Yuma-based employee when he struck and seriously injured a motorcyclist on the night of Dec. 11, 2007.
Aaron Engler — who has since died of unrelated causes — sued the employee, Ian Gray, and Gulf for his injuries, arguing that Gray would not have been in Yuma if not for his work. Gulf argued that it could not be held liable for Gray's actions because he was on his own time and not acting on the company's behalf or under its control while off the clock.
A Yuma County Superior Court judge, the mid-level Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court all agreed with Gulf. A different Court of Appeals ruling at about the same time in a similar case went the other way, though, sending the Yuma case to the state Supreme Court to resolve the apparent conflict.
Gray, a Houston resident, was working on the design and construction of a natural gas compressor for Gulf in Los Algodones, Baja Calif., at the time of the collision. He stayed in a hotel in Yuma and drove to and from the Mexico worksite daily. Gulf paid for his hotel, meals and the rental car that he was driving at the time of the collision. It also considered the drive to and from Los Algodones to be part of his workday and paid him for his commute time. It did not attempt to supervise or control him during his off hours.
On the night of the collision, Gray had already returned to his hotel after work and left again, with a co-worker, to eat dinner. On the way back to the hotel after dinner, Gray made an improper left turn and hit Engler.
Writing for the state Supreme Court, Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch said Gray was not serving Gulf's interests while he was out for dinner after work, and that he was acting independently.
“That he ate dinner with a work colleague after work hours did not transform the social occasion into a business activity,” White Berch wrote.
The court rejected Engler's argument that all of Gray's activities while in Yuma furthered Gulf's purposes and that he was necessarily under its control because he had to eat while away from home on the extended assignment.
Engler died in April after losing control of his vehicle and crashing into a barrier near the intersection of County 14th Street and Avenue A. There were no potential lingering effects from the 2007 incident that would have contributed to the April crash, said his lawyer Michael Aboud.
Aboud maintained his stance on Gulf's liability and said he was disappointed in the high court's decision. Aboud, who represented Engler with his father, local attorney Don Engler, said the elder Engler had hoped for a decision in their favor as a tribute to his son.
Read the full opinion at http://ow.ly/c7Jmq.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Hillary Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6857. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSHillaryDavis or on Twitter at @YSHillaryDavis.