Georgia’s Continuing Battle Over Respondeat Superior and Apportionment Claims
Atlanta, Ga. (June 22, 2022) - Respondeat superior claims in Georgia continue to be a hot button topic. Several key legal updates occurred, which swung the needle in both directions, affecting both liberal and conservative applications of the claim. Georgia courts have traditionally recognized the doctrine of respondeat superior – a doctrine that simply means an employer can be held liable for the actions of an employee, if an employee was operating in the course and scope of their employment at the time of the underlying incident.
Under a long-standing procedure, following the Georgia Tort Reform of 2005, when “an action is brought against more than one person for injury to person or property,” Georgia’s Apportionment Statute, Section 51-12-33(b) requires a jury to assign the percentages of fault among those parties found liable, for the purposes of ascertaining damages. As a result, the claims encompassed by the respondeat superior rule are claims that the employer is at “fault” within the meaning of the statute. Significantly, by following the applicable statute, a jury would be restricted from assigning fault to the employer separately from the employee’s fault under the claims of negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention. Thus, commercial carriers and similar employers that admitted vicarious liability were then, under respondeat superior, entitled to summary judgment on the above noted direct employer negligence liability claims.
However, in 2020, the Georgia Supreme Court, in Quynn v. Hulsey, et. al., 310 Ga. 473 (Ga. 2020), held that Georgia law requires “once liability has been established and the damages sustained by the plaintiff have been calculated, the trier of fact must then assess the relative fault of all those who contributed to the plaintiff’s injury — including the plaintiff himself — and apportion the damages based on this assessment of relative fault.” Thus, the Georgia Supreme Court surprisingly set a precedent that Georgia’s Apportionment Statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33, abrogated, what the court called the “Respondeat Superior Rule.” The court essentially reasoned that the language of apportionment required a sitting jury to consider fault amongst all parties and that the Apportionment Statute preempted the Respondeat Superior Rule. Critically, this ruling gutted the ability for employers that concede vicarious liability to avoid unnecessary additional exposure.
Then, the Georgia Supreme Court further constricted apportionment applications to defendants where only a single defendant was named at the time of trial. In Alston & Bird v. Hatcher Management Holdings, 355 Ga. 350 (2020), Georgia’s highest court found that Section 51-12-33(b) does not permit any reduction of damages concerning non-party fault when a case involves a single defendant. More specifically, the court reasoned that strict construction of the Apportionment Statute does not allow for non-party fault protection in a case brought against only one defendant because the statute states it must be “brought against more than one person.” As a result, subsection (a) of the statute applies, permitting a reduction in damages against a plaintiff only and not non-parties.
Fortunately, the Georgia Legislature went to work to clarify any misapplied interpretation read into the Apportionment Statute. On May 13, 2022, the Governor of Georgia signed into law HB 961, which amended the Apportionment Statute to correct the language of subsection (b), once again allowing a defendant or defendants – no matter the number named in a suit – to apportion fault towards all parties and non-parties.
For more information on these developments, contact the authors or editor of this alert. Visit our General Liability Practice page for additional alerts in this area.
Wm. Daniel Floyd, Partner
G. Ches Graham III, Associate
Joelle Nelson, Partner