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Lucas v. Beckman Coulter, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

February 5, 2019

LUCAS
v.
BECKMAN COULTER, INC. et al.

          DILLARD, C. J., REESE, J., and COOMER, J.

          DILLARD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         In this civil action, Claude Lucas sued Beckman Coulter, Inc. ("BCI") and its employee, Jeremy Wilson, alleging that the defendants are liable for injuries he suffered when Wilson accidentally shot him with a handgun while on a service call for BCI at Lucas's place of employment. Following discovery, BCI moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. On appeal, Lucas contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment, arguing that BCI is not immune from firearm-related tort liability under OCGA § 16-11-135 and that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether BCI is liable for Wilson's negligent conduct under theories of respondeat superior and negligent supervision.

         In our previous decision in this matter, we held that the trial court did not err in finding that, under these particular circumstances, BCI was immune from firearm-related tort liability under OCGA § 16-11-135 (e) (2) and granting summary judgment in its favor on that ground.[1] Consequently, we did not address Lucas's remaining claims of error.[2] But after granting Lucas's petition for certiorari in Lucas v. Beckman Coulter, Inc., [3] the Supreme Court of Georgia reversed our decision, holding that "[OCGA § 16-11-135 (e)] cannot be construed as providing immunity to this case."[4]Thus, our Supreme Court remanded the case and instructed this Court to address Lucas's assertion that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to BCI on his claims of liability under theories of respondeat superior and negligent supervision.[5] For the reasons set forth infra, we adopt the judgment of the Supreme Court, and affirm the trial court's ruling granting summary judgment to BCI as to both of Lucas's vicarious liability claims.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant (i.e., Lucas), [6] the record shows that BCI is a company based out of Southern California that develops, manufactures, markets, and services biomedical testing equipment for medical facilities. In furtherance of this business, BCI employs field-service engineers, whose responsibilities include traveling to clients' medical facilities, usually in a vehicle provided by BCI, and performing onsite maintenance and repair of BCI equipment. At the time of the incident giving rise to this case, Wilson had been employed as a field-service engineer for BCI since 1999, and serviced accounts in South Georgia, including the Albany area.

         On July 10, 2013, Wilson traveled in a company van to the Albany Area Primary Healthcare ("AAPH") facility to perform maintenance work on BCI equipment. Upon arriving at the facility around 10:00 a.m., Wilson entered and saw that the equipment he was there to service was currently in use and, thus, he could not immediately begin working on it. Consequently, Wilson went back outside to the facility's parking lot where he found Lucas-an AAPH lab technician he had known for several years-taking a personal break. After chatting for a few minutes, the two men started heading back toward the facility, at which point Lucas mentioned that several vehicles in the parking lot had been broken into recently. This information concerned Wilson because, although doing so violated company policy, he regularly took his personal handgun with him while traveling for BCI. And now worried that his handgun might be stolen, Wilson retrieved it from the van and followed Lucas back toward the entrance of the medical facility. Then, shortly after entering the building, Wilson attempted to clear the weapon, but as he did, the gun discharged, striking Wilson in the hand and Lucas in the abdomen. Emergency medical personnel quickly arrived, and both men were transported to a local hospital for treatment. Two days later, BCI terminated Wilson's employment for violating company policy by transporting his handgun in a company vehicle.

         Thereafter, Lucas filed a lawsuit against Wilson and BCI, alleging that Wilson's negligence resulted in his injuries and that BCI was liable for Wilson's conduct under theories of respondeat superior and negligent supervision. BCI answered and, following discovery, filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that, as a threshold matter, it was immune from firearm-related tort liability under OCGA § 16-11-135, and that, regardless, it was not liable under Lucas's claims of respondeat superior or negligent supervision. Lucas responded, and the trial court held a hearing on the matter, after which it granted summary judgment in favor of BCI as to all of Lucas's claims. This appeal follows.

         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."[7] If summary judgment is granted by a trial court, it enjoys no presumption of correctness on appeal, "and an appellate court must satisfy itself de novo that the requirements of OCGA § 9-11-56 (c) have been met."[8]Moreover, in our de novo review of a trial court's grant of a motion for summary judgment, we are charged with "viewing the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant."[9] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Lucas's specific claims of error.

         1. As noted in our previous decision, Lucas contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment, arguing that, under the circumstances at issue here, BCI is not immune from firearm-related tort liability under OCGA § 16-11-135. And as noted supra, the Supreme Court of Georgia has now held that "[OCGA § 16-11-135 (e) cannot be construed as providing immunity to this case."[10] Accordingly, we adopt the judgment of the Supreme Court in this regard and hold that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to BCI on this ground.

         2. Lucas also contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of BCI because genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether BCI is liable for Wilson's negligent conduct under the theory of respondeat superior. We disagree.

         It is well established that two elements must be present to render a master liable for his servant's actions under respondeat superior: first, the servant must be in furtherance of the master's business; and, second, he must be acting within the scope of his master's business.[11] Specifically, if a tort is committed by an employee not by reason of the employment, but "because of matters disconnected therewith, the employer is not liable."[12] Importantly, summary judgment for the master is appropriate when "the evidence shows that the servant was not engaged in furtherance of his master's business but was on a private enterprise of his own."[13] But the question of whether "the servant at the time of an injury to another was acting in the prosecution of his master's business and in the scope of his employment is for determination by the jury, except in plain and indisputable cases."[14]

         Here, despite the fact that he traveled to AAPH to perform maintenance work on behalf of BCI, Wilson's specific acts of transporting his personal handgun in a company vehicle, retrieving the weapon from the vehicle based on his fear that it might be stolen, and then taking it into his client's facility were not connected to or in furtherance of his duties and responsibilities at BCI and, therefore, he abandoned BCI's business when he engaged in such conduct.[15] In fact, Wilson was well aware that transporting his handgun in BCI's company vehicle violated company policy. Regardless, he chose to do so and then took his weapon into a client's facility for purely personal reasons rather than for any purpose beneficial to BCI.[16] Given these particular circumstances, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment to BCI on Lucas's respondeat superior theory.

         3. Lucas further contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of BCI because genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether BCI is liable for Wilson's negligent conduct under the theory of negligent supervision. Again, we disagree.

         OCGA § 34-7-20, in part, provides that an "employer is bound to exercise ordinary care in the selection of employees and not to retain them after knowledge of incompetency. . . ." Additionally, the Supreme Court of Georgia has more specifically held that a defendant employer has "a duty to exercise ordinary care not to hire or retain an employee the employer knew or should have known posed a risk of harm to others [when] it is reasonably foreseeable from the employee's tendencies or propensities that the employee could cause the type of harm sustained by the plaintiff."[17] Indeed, the employer is "subject to liability only for such harm as is within the risk."[18] And importantly, our Supreme Court has already rejected "[plaintiff's] 'but for' argument that [the employer] is liable for the ...


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