An Underreported Landmark: The Textualist Dismantling of the Respondeat Superior Rule
06/07/2022By Mick Evans
In the last several years, the Supreme Court of Georgia has handed down significant rulings overturning long-standing Georgia common law precedent by adopting an increasingly textualist approach to statutory interpretation. While much has been written about the landmark decision in Alston & Byrd v. Hatcher Management, 312 Ga. 350 (2021), which disabused the legal profession of its long-established understanding of non-party apportionment in single defendant cases, decisions like Quynn v. Hulsey, 310 Ga 473 (2020) have had comparatively less coverage. This apparent lack of discussion is surprising given that in Quynn, the Supreme Court dismantled the Respondeat Superior rule, which is often a corporate defendant’s most effective tool in winning summary judgment on negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention claims.
The Respondeat Superior rule is a common law decisional rule first adopted by Georgia courts in the late 1960s. See Hill v. Willis, 224 Ga. 263 (1968). The rule provides that “if a defendant employer concedes that it will be vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior if its employee is found negligent, the employer is entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, training, and retention, unless the plaintiff has also brought a valid claim for punitive damages against the employer for its own independent negligence.” See Hospital Authority of Valdosta/Lowndes County v. Fender, 342 Ga. App. 13 (2017). The reasoning behind the Respondeat Superior rule was that because “the employer would be liable for the employee’s negligence under respondeat superior, allowing claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, [training] and retention would not entitle the plaintiff to a greater recovery, but would merely serve to prejudice the employer.” Mastec North America, Inc. v. Wilson, 325 Ga. App. 863 (2014).
For more than five decades, from the late 1960s to the start of the 2020s, the Respondeat Superior rule stood undisturbed. Even with the drastic changes brought to litigation practice by the passage of the Georgia Tort Reform Act of 2005, Georgia courts continued to affirm the rule and it came to be used as a staple of defense practice.
Everything changed, however, in November 2020, when Georgia’s highest court eliminated the Respondeat Superior rule in a single decision. In Quynn, an estate plaintiff brought suit against a defendant employer and its employee for an incident where the decedent was struck and killed by the defendant employee who was driving a truck owned by the defendant employer. The lower court granted summary judgment to the defendant employer on the plaintiff’s claims for negligent entrustment, hiring, training, and supervision by applying the Respondeat Superior rule.
After losing the case at trial, the plaintiff appealed, arguing before the Court of Appeals of Georgia that the Apportionment Statute, as revised by the Tort Reform Act, abrogated the Respondeat Superior rule and required the trier of fact to consider apportionment of fault among all persons and entities who contributed to the injury, even in cases where no punitive damages claim was alleged. See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33. When the Court of Appeals rejected this argument, the plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court, who surprisingly reversed the Court of Appeals and adopted the reasoning of the plaintiff. The Court explained that O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(b) requires that the jury “apportion its award of damages among the persons who are liable according to the percentage of fault of each person.” As such, the Court concluded that “the claims encompassed by the Respondeat Superior Rule are claims that the employer is at ‘fault’ within the meaning of the [A]pportionment [S]tatue.” Reasoning that as “long as legislation does not violate the Constitution, when the Legislature say something clearly – or even just implies it – statutes trump cases,” the Court found that the Respondeat Superior rule conflicted the with the plain text of O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 and was thus abrogated by statute.
As result of this single ruling, defendants and defense attorneys must now develop new strategies for defending against claims of negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention. For now, the best way forward appears to involve disputing the merits of these claims by arguing that the record in a given case lacks evidence in support of said claims and/or that the plaintiff’s evidence in support of these claims is insufficient to survive summary judgment.