Case Update: Hicks v. Heard Fuel Co.   2 comments

As promised in an earlier post, below is a summary of our recent Georgia Supreme Court case of Hicks v. Heard Fuel Co. et. al SO9G1508.

Render Freeman and M.J. Blakely, Jr. successfully represented Ms. Heard and her employer, Heard Fuel, Co in a Motion for Summary Judgment that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The issue was whether an employee should have to face a jury trial for an employee’s negligent acts when the only evidence that the employee was actually working at the time of an automobile collision was that she was driving a car owned by her employer and that she described herself as an “on-call” employee. M.J. Blakely, Jr. argued the matter before the Supreme Court and they ruled 4-3 in Heard Fuel Co.’s favor.

Heard Fuel, Co. is a closely held, family propane gas company, and Ms. Heard is the only daughter of Heard Fuel, Co.’s vice president. Ms. Heard worked as a clerical assistant for her father at Heard Fuel, Co. on a part-time, as needed basis.

One afternoon, while on her way home from a test at American Intercontinental University, Ms. Heard caused an automobile collision when she rear-ended a vehicle that was then propelled into the rear of Ms. Hicks’ vehicle. Ms. Hicks sued Ms. Heard and Heard Fuel, Co. for personal injuries.

Ms. Hicks claimed that Heard Fuel, Co. should be held liable for her injuries under the doctrine of respondeat superior, a special legal doctrine that requires employers to answer for the negligence of their employees when the employee causes an injury while doing work for the employer. Both Heard Fuel Co. and Ms. Heard denied that Ms. Heard was doing work for Heard Fuel, Co. at the time of the accident and asked the trial court to find that Heard Fuel, Co. should not have to remain a defendant in the case as a matter of law. Ms. Hicks, however, pointed to the fact that the SUV that Ms. Heard was driving at the time of the accident happened to be owned by Heard Fuel Co., and when an employee causes an accident while driving a vehicle owned by his or her employer, the law presumes that the employee was doing work for the employer at the time of the accident.

In instances where the employee is driving an employer owned vehicle at the time of the accident, the employee or employer must provide some evidence that the employee was not working at the time of the accident in order to avoid having the employer face a jury trial. Ms. Heard showed that she was actually on the way home from a test at the time of the collision, and Heard Fuel Co. presented Ms. Heard’s time sheets which showed that she had not worked during the entire month of the collision because she was in summer school. Once Ms. Heard and Heard Fuel Co. provided evidence that Ms. Heard was not working at the time of the collision, Ms. Hicks was required to point to some other fact that would suggest that Ms. Heard was in fact working at the time of the incident in order to keep Heard Fuel Co. in the case and have a jury trial. Ms. Hicks pointed to the fact that Ms. Heard described herself as an “on call” employee.

The Forsyth County trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed that the mere fact that Ms. Heard was an “on call” employee was not sufficient to suggest that she was actually doing work for Heard Fuel at the time of the accident. Then, Ms. Hicks appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court and the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s and trial court’s decision in a narrow 4-3 victory in favor of Heard Fuel Co. The Supreme Court has effectively held that in cases where an employee is presumed to be doing work for their employer because the employee is involved in an automobile collision while driving the employer’s vehicle, the plaintiff must show more than the mere fact that the employee is on call at the time of the collision in order to get his or her case to a jury.

If you have a situation that might have some similarity with these facts, or another legal issue arising from a personal injury claim against you or your company, please do not hesitate to contact us for legal advice that is tailored to your situation.

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2 responses to “Case Update: Hicks v. Heard Fuel Co.

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  2. I conceive you have observed some very interesting points , appreciate it for the post.

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