Ontario Court of Appeal reverses verdict holding employer liable for road accident caused by employee

The Ontario Court of Appeal has recently dismissed an action for damages against the employer of an impaired driver. In a case reported in the April 2000 issue of FOCUS (see “Employer held liable for injuries sustained in off-site accident caused by drunken employee” on our Publications page), a jury found Eaton Yale Ltd. 30 per cent liable for injuries sustained in an off-site accident caused by one of its employees. The verdict came despite evidence that no one at the plant knew that the employee, Flynn, had been drinking that night and had returned home safely and gone out again before the accident occurred.

In John v. Flynn, (June 28, 2001), the Court of Appeal held that the basic error of the parties in the case, including the trial judge, was in confusing the duty of an employer to provide a safe working environment for its employees, with the duty of a bar or restaurant owner to its patrons when it has knowledge that the patrons are intoxicated. In fusing together these unrelated duties, the parties lost sight, in the Court’s words, of the following set of circumstances:

    “When the accident occurred, Flynn was not at work, he was not going to or from work, he was not supposed to be at work and he was not travelling during his working hours. The fact is that before Flynn negligently drove and injured Mr. John, he had been at his home following the end of his shift, and driven home safely from work, as was his custom. Flynn had not been sent home, suspended or disciplined in any way for his conduct at work on the night in question and there was no criticism of his work that day.”

The jury’s verdict appeared to have been based solely on the general manner in which Eaton Yale supervised its employees. However, the real issue was whether it owed a duty of care to the accident victims. In focussing on the employer’s level of supervision, rather than the basic question of whether there was a duty of care, the Court stated that the trial judge’s instruction sent the case “off the rails”:

    “There is a clear duty on an employer to provide a safe work environment for its employees. Where safety rules have been promulgated, management should insist that they be observed. … But the focus is on the workplace and in broad terms the duty of care to its employees does not extend beyond the workplace. The notion that an employer … has a duty to monitor its employees to determine if it is safe for them to drive home is novel in the extreme.”

As well, the Court stated, the jury should have been instructed to consider whether there was any evidence that anyone in a position of authority knew that Flynn was intoxicated on the night in question. In fact, the Court noted, the evidence on this point was all to the contrary.

For further information, please contact J.D. Sharp at (613) 563-7660, Extension 233.

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