Christensen v. Swenson

(Utah, 1994)

Procedural History
: Burns moved for summary judgment on the ground that Swenson was not acting in the scope of employment at the time of the accident. Trial court granted the motion and the court of appeals affirmed. Supreme Court ruled that there is a dispute of fact in applying the rule, and so summary judgment was not appropriate.

Facts: Swenson was assigned to guard Gate 4 at Geneva Steel Plant. Guards worked 8-hour continuous shifts but were permitted to take 10-15 minute lunch and restroom breaks. There was one restaurant within close physical proximity to Gate 4, the Frontier Café. The café was located 150-250 yards away from Gate 4. The café’s menu was conspicuously posted near the telephone at Gate 4. Guards were expected to eat at their posts.

On the day in question, Swenson placed a phone order for soup and drove to the café to pick it up in order to return to Gate 4 and eat at her post. She expected the round trip to take no more than 15 minutes, the amount of time permitted for lunch breaks. On her return, she collided with a motorcycle just outside of Geneva’s property and several were injured.

Legal Issue: If an employee commits a tort outside the “regular” scope of their employment but during time while they are being paid by their employer for somewhat related employment duties, is the employer vicariously liable for torts committed by its employees?

Rules: Under doctrine of respondeat superior (holding an employer liable for the employee’s wrongful acts committed within the scope of the employment), employers are vicariously liable for torts committed within the scope of their employment.
1. Employee’s conduct must be of the general kind employee is hired to perform.
2. Employee’s conduct must occur substantially within the hours and ordinary spatial boundaries of the employment.
3. Employee’s conduct must be motivated, at least in part, by the purpose of serving the employer’s interest.

Application: If a reasonable jury or person could argue that the above 3 components of the Birkner test of “scope of employment” are met by a case, then the employer can be held vicariously liable.

Holding: An employer is vicariously liable for torts committed by its employees within the “scope” of their employment, including on lunch breaks if it is a paid break and it takes place on or nearby the employee’s work station. (Supreme Court determined summary judgment was not appropriate).

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