Car dealerships must be a Mecca for pranks. The combination of substantial periods of downtime with a lively sales staff leads to workplace fun. But what happens when things turn ugly, and someone gets hurt? Does the employer bear any responsibility?
High jinks among the Chevys
Doug Baldwin was the new car manager for Riverside Chevrolet in Tulsa, and Melvin Mitchell was employed as a sales manager. On the day of the prank, Baldwin’s then-wife, Lindsey, accompanied a friend to the dealership to visit Baldwin. While she was talking with her husband, Mitchell surprised Lindsey from behind and kicked the back of her knee. From all accounts, Mitchell was “teasing his boss’s wife for fun.” Mitchell’s kick, however, was a little too strong, causing Lindsey’s anterior cruciate ligament and medial meniscus to be torn.
This was not Mitchell’s first attempt at workplace humor. According to Lindsey, he had a reputation as a prankster and had previously struck people in the back of their knees while at work. Lindsey complained that Riverside Chevrolet did not speak to Mitchell about the injury he had inflicted on his boss’s wife. Three months later, the dealership ended Mitchell’s employment. Lindsey sued Riverside Chevrolet for her injuries, claiming the employer was responsible for Mitchell’s prank because it happened at the dealership while he was working. Lindsey argued Riverside Chevrolet “ratified” Mitchell’s actions by failing to address his prankster tendencies and keeping him around for another three months after he injured Lindsey.
Dealership escapes liability
The question is: when are employers liable for the things an employee does while they are working? As a general rule, if the employee’s actions occur in the course of their employment and within the scope of their employment, the employer is at risk. Typically, if the employee acts while engaged in assigned work and doing what is customary to accomplish the work assigned, then the employer may be liable for their worker’s actions. On the other hand, an employee’s “purely personal act[s] for personal motives or whims” do not advance the employer’s business and should not lead to liability for the employer.
Oklahoma’s Court of Appeals explained that if an employee’s workplace prank was carried out as part of their job duties – “even if ill-advised” – the employer could be held liable for the event and any aftermath. However, if the prank was personally motivated and did not arise from some activity benefitting the employer’s objectives, then the employer should not be responsible. Here, Mitchell’s knee kick to Lindsey did not occur wile he was carrying out any assigned work. Lindsey was not a potential car buyer, and Mitchell was not trying to “joke around” in order to sell her a car. For these reasons, our Oklahoma Court of Appeals decided Lindsey could not sue Riverside Chevrolet for her knee injures.
- Baldwin v. SAI Riverside C, LLC, 2014 OK CIV APP 55