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Archer Forestry, LLC v. Dolatowski

Court of Appeals of Georgia

March 27, 2015

ARCHER FORESTRY, LLC et al.
v.
DOLATOWSKI

Negligence. DeKalb Superior Court. Before Judge Adams.

Carlock, Copeland & Stair, Frederick M. Valz III, L. Elizabeth Albright, The Godsey Firm, J. Gregory Godsey, for appellants.

Jenkins & Bowen, Frank E. Jenkins III, Robert L. Walker, for appellee.

OPINION

Page 379

Phipps, Chief Judge.

Mary Jean Franklin Dolatowski sustained injuries when the vehicle she was driving collided with a vehicle being driven by Steven Ray Archer. At the time of the collision, at about 2:00 p.m. on November 20, 2008, Archer was driving home in his employer's vehicle. In her ensuing tort action, Dolatowski named numerous defendants, including Archer and his employer, Archer Forestry, LLC (collectively, the Archer Defendants). Dolatowski claimed that the Archer Defendants were liable to her under theories of negligence.

The Archer Defendants filed a joint motion for summary judgment. Therein, they challenged Dolatowski's claims for punitive damages on the ground that she had failed to adduce sufficient evidence therefor; alternatively, they sought a ruling that, given the evidence adduced, any award of punitive damages must be statutorily capped. Contesting liability, Archer Forestry argued that there was no evidence to support a finding of respondeat superior; and both defendants argued that Dolatowski was barred from any recovery due to her own (alleged) negligent driving and failure to avoid the consequences of their (alleged) negligence. The trial court entered a [331 Ga.App. 677] detailed order, rejecting the Archer Defendants' arguments that the evidence failed to justify punitive damages and failed to show respondeat superior. The court made no ruling, however, as to their remaining two challenges.

In this appeal, the Archer Defendants maintain that they were entitled to rulings in their favor on each ground asserted.[1] For reasons that follow, we reverse the rulings made by the trial court and remand the case for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Summary judgment is proper " if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." [2] " Thus, to prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact, so that the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." [3] " In our de novo review of the grant [or denial] of a motion for summary judgment, we must view the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant." [4]

1. The Archer Defendants contend that the trial court erred by concluding that they were not entitled to summary judgment on Dolatowski's claims for punitive damages, maintaining that Dolatowski failed to adduce evidence that would authorize such an award.

Pursuant to OCGA § 51-12-5.1 (b),

[p]unitive damages may be awarded only in such tort actions in which it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant's actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.

Page 380

Citing that statutory provision, the Supreme Court of Georgia has [331 Ga.App. 678] espoused:

Something more than the mere commission of a tort is necessary for the imposition of punitive damages. Negligence alone, even gross negligence, is insufficient to support punitive damages. Punitive damages cannot be imposed without a finding of culpable conduct based upon either intentional and wilful acts, or acts that exhibit an entire want of care and indifference to consequences.[5]

Accordingly, this court has held, " [i]n cases involving automobile collisions, punitive damages are authorized when the accident results from a pattern or policy of dangerous driving, such as excessive speeding or driving while intoxicated, but not when a driver simply violates a rule of the road." [6]

Countering the Archer Defendants' challenge, Dolatowski presented an accident reconstructionist's opinion that, immediately before impact, Archer was traveling approximately 48-51 miles per hour in a 45 miles per hour zone. Additionally, Dolatowski cited evidence that, when the collision occurred, Archer was talking on his cell phone, which she maintains showed that Archer was a distracted driver.

We agree with the Archer Defendants. Construed in Dolatowski's favor, the evidence fell short of providing a basis for an award of punitive damages against either of them.[7] Accordingly, the trial court's ruling that the Archer Defendants were not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Dolatowski's claims for punitive damages is reversed.

2. Our holding in Division 1[8] renders moot the Archer Defendants' contention that the trial court erred by failing to cap punitive damages at $250,000 under OCGA § 51-12-5.1 (g).

[331 Ga.App. 679] 3. Archer Forestry contends that the trial court erred when it failed to grant summary judgment on the issue of respondeat superior, maintaining that Dolatowski failed to adduce evidence from which a jury could find that Archer was in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the collision. We agree.

As explained in Allen Kane's Major Dodge v. Barnes,[9] " [w]hen a servant causes an injury to another, the test to determine if the master is liable is whether or not the servant was at the time of the injury acting within the scope of his employment and on the business of the master." [10]

Where a tort occurs as a result of a vehicle collision in which the employee was driving his employer's vehicle, ... the employer's liability must be analyzed under the burden-shifting framework espoused by the Supreme Court of Georgia in Allen Kane's Major Dodge.[[11]] Under this framework, a presumption arises that the employee was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the collision, and the burden is then on the employer to show otherwise. An employer may overcome this presumption as a matter of law by presenting uncontradicted evidence showing that the employee was not acting

Page 381

in the course and scope of his employment. The employer is thereafter entitled to summary judgment unless other facts are proffered ... from which a jury could reasonably infer that the employee was acting within the course and scope of his employment when the accident occurred.[12]

Here, it was uncontested that Archer was driving his employer's vehicle at the time of the collision. But Archer Forestry rebutted the presumption that thereby arose, citing evidence that when the collision occurred at about 2:00 p.m., Archer was driving home. " As a general rule, a servant in going to and from his work in an automobile acts only for his own purposes and not for those of his employer, and consequently the employer is not to be held liable for an injury occasioned while the servant is en route to or from his work." [13] As [331 Ga.App. 680] Archer recounted during his deposition, his son was in the car at the time; earlier that day, he had picked up his son from middle school, and taken him to an appointment with a pediatrician; the two of them had left the doctor's office at about 1:30 p.m. When the collision occurred, Archer recounted, he was on his cell phone with his wife, discussing their son's doctor's visit.

Dolatowski maintains that she nevertheless created a factual issue regarding respondeat superior with evidence showing that, within the 25 minutes prior to the collision, Archer used his cell phone to make calls relating to his employer's business. Additionally, she cites evidence that at about 2:48 p.m. on the day in question, Archer again used his cell phone to make a call relating to his employer's business, which call lasted a few minutes. (But Archer deposed that he did not recall whether he was still at the scene of the accident at the time of that call.)

Even so, the evidence cited by Dolatowski created nothing for a jury to decide.[14] Contrary to cases such as Hunter v. Modern Continental Constr. Co. [15] and Clo White Co. v. Lattimore,[16] there was no evidence, or even an assertion, that Archer was on a business call at the time of the collision.

[331 Ga.App. 681] Given the foregoing,

[t]he evidence in the instant case demands the conclusion that, at the time of the collision complained of, [Archer] was using [Archer Forestry's] automobile for a purely personal mission of his own ... , in no way connected with the business of

Page 382

[Archer Forestry], and not within the scope of his employment.[17]

Archer Forestry was therefore entitled to summary judgment on the issue of respondeat superior.[18] The trial court's ruling holding otherwise is reversed.

4. The Archer Defendants contend that, pursuant to OCGA § 51-11-7 and cases such as Weston v. Dun Transp. & Stringer,[19] they were entitled to summary judgment on the ground that Dolatowski's own (alleged) negligence barred any recovery against them. While this ground was argued to the trial court, the court made no ruling thereon in its detailed order.[20] And " we decline to address the[ ] ground[ ] on appeal because [it was] not ruled upon by the trial court." [21]

This case is hereby remanded to the trial court so that it may address the remaining ground advanced by the Archer Defendants.[22]

Judgment reversed and case remanded.

Ellington, P. J., and McMillian, J., concur.


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