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Jeewarat v. Warner Bros. Entertainment

September 3, 2009

CHUENCHOMPORN JEEWARAT ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT, INC., DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Yvette E. Palazuelos, Judge. Reversed. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC368657)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kriegler, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

An employee returning home after a three-day business conference was driving his regular commute route when he was involved in a car accident that injured several pedestrians. Plaintiffs sought to impose liability against the employer based on principles of respondeat superior. The employer filed a motion for summary judgment based on the "going and coming rule," which provides that an employer is not subject to vicarious liability for accidents occurring during an employee‟s commute to or from the workplace. The trial court granted the motion and entered judgment in favor of the employer. On appeal, plaintiffs contend the business conference was a special errand under the "special errand doctrine," which holds an employer vicariously liable for accidents occurring while an employee is engaged in a special errand for the employer, including the employee‟s commute to or from the special errand.

We hold that an employee‟s attendance at an out-of-town business conference may be considered a special errand under the special errand doctrine. In addition, when an employee intends to drive home from the errand, the errand is not concluded simply because the employee drives his regular commute route, but rather, the errand is concluded when the employee returns home or deviates from the errand for personal reasons. Because the employer failed to show that the employee was not acting within the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident, summary judgment was improperly granted. We reverse.

FACTS

Marc Brandon worked for Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (Warner) as Vice-President of Anti-Piracy Internet Operations. Warner did not provide him with a car or gas allowance, and he was not reimbursed for mileage. He typically left his office on a workday between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

In August 2006, he attended a three-day business conference in Sunnyvale, California that was sponsored by one of Warner‟s anti-piracy vendors. Warner approved Brandon‟s trip and paid for his airfare, hotel, and airport parking.

On August 11, 2006, Brandon left the conference early and flew back to the Burbank Airport, where he retrieved his car from a satellite parking lot. He did not intend to go to his office, but instead planned to return to his home and take his dogs for a walk. On his way home, he drove around the studio complex where his office was located without stopping and took his normal route home for approximately two to three miles, until he was involved in an automobile collision with Jared Southard. The accident occurred at approximately 4:35 p.m.

One or both cars struck and injured pedestrians Chuenchomporn Jeewarat, Tipphawan Tantisriyanurakand Kanhathai Vutthicharoen. Vutthicharoen died as a result of her injuries.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On February 2, 2007, Jeewarat and Tantisriyanurak filed a personal injury action against Brandon and Southard. On July 5, 2007, Jeewarat and Tantisriyanurak filed an amendment to the complaint substituting Warner as a Doe defendant. An amended complaint was filed which added as plaintiffs Vutthicharoen‟s parents Anek Vutthicharoen and Kanchana Vutthicharoen, individually and as administrators of their child‟s estate. The amended complaint alleged causes of action for negligence and wrongful death against Warner.

In May 2008, Warner filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Brandon was commuting from work to home when the accident occurred, and therefore, under the "going and coming rule," Brandon was not acting within the scope of his employment and Warner could not be held vicariously liable. Warner further argued that the "commercial traveler exception," which extends workers‟ compensation liability to accidents occurring during commercial travel, does not apply in third party tort cases, and the "special errand" doctrine does not apply to cases involving commercial travel. Warner asserted that even if the special errand doctrine applied, any special errand ended when Brandon drove his regular commute route home.

Plaintiffs opposed the motion. They argued that a reasonable inference could be drawn that Brandon was traveling "from work to work" at the time of the accident, because he regularly did work at his home office. As a result, Brandon was acting within the course and scope of his employment and the "going and coming rule" did not apply. Alternatively, plaintiffs argued that the special errand exception to the "going and coming rule" applied, because Brandon had not made any stops and had not yet returned home from the conference at the time of the collision. Thus, Brandon was in the course and scope of his employment for the entire trip until he arrived home.

In its reply, Warner responded that Brandon‟s work in his home office should not transform his home into a workplace and abrogate the coming and going rule. In addition, Warner argued that the special errand doctrine did not apply to a business trip, and even if it did, Brandon had abandoned any errand for Warner when ...


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