McHaffie Still the Trucking Company’s Best Friend?

4/1/2011 -

Still the Trucking Company’s Best Friend?  The Status of McHaffie v. Bunch

There is a Missouri Supreme Court case that, for those who defend companies in the transportation industry can all agree, is a great help: McHaffie v. Bunch, 891 S.W.2d 822 (Mo. banc 1995).  The decision provides an excellent shield against claims for negligent hiring, negligent retention, and negligent supervision.

In McHaffie, the plaintiff was a passenger in an automobile who was injured in a collision with a tractor-trailer.  The plaintiff alleged the tractor-trailer driver’s employer negligently hired and supervised him.  The jury found the employer’s negligent hiring and supervision were the cause of 10 percent of the passenger’s damages.  On appeal, the employer argued it was improper for the judge to submit the plaintiff’s negligent entrustment and hiring claims to the jury because the employer admitted the driver was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident.  The Missouri Supreme Court agreed, and reversed the judgment entered on those claims.

Missouri’s Supreme Court pointed out that most states do not allow plaintiffs to pursue negligent hiring/supervision/retention claims when an employer/employee relationship is admitted because these claims waste court and litigant time and expense.  Plus, the Court observed that potentially inflammatory evidence comes into the record that is irrelevant to any contested issue in the case.  Therefore, the Court ultimately concluded in McHaffie that once an agency relationship is admitted, it is error to permit a separate assessment of fault to the employer based upon negligent entrustment or hiring theories and to admit evidence on those theories.

During the last decade, we have seen some chinks in the armor provided by the McHaffie holding.  Interestingly, while Missouri’s state appellate courts have left the case alone, federal courts interpreting Missouri law have not been as hands off.  In Miller v. Crete Carrier Corp., 2003 WL 25694930 (E.D. Mo. 2003), the plaintiffs sued a trucking company and included negligent hiring and retention claims.  The plaintiffs also sought punitive damages.  The trucking company moved for summary judgment on the negligent hiring and retention claims, citing McHaffie in support.  The plaintiffs argued, in response, that their case was different because they were seeking punitive damages.  The federal district court agreed and denied the trucking company’s motion.  In so doing, the court looked to dicta in McHaffie that suggested it may be possible that an employer may be held liable on a negligence theory that does not derive from, and is not dependent on, the employee’s negligence, and that it is possible an employer may be liable for punitive damages that could not be assessed against the employee.

In Jackson v. Wiersema Charter Serv., Inc., 2009 WL 1310064 (E.D. Mo. 2009), the plaintiff also made negligent hiring and retention claims against the defendant.  The plaintiff also sought punitive damages.  In response, the defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s negligent hiring and retention claims, citing McHaffie in support.  The federal district court denied the defendant’s motion, cited the Miller v. Crete Carrier decision, and ruled that the plaintiff at least could jump the motion to dismiss hurdle.

In Burroughs v. Mackie Moving Systems Corp., 2010 WL 1254630 (E.D. Mo. 2010), the defendant sought to bar expert testimony attacking its hiring, training, supervision, and entrustment practices, citing McHaffie in support of its position that such evidence is irrelevant when agency is admitted.  The court denied the defendant’s motion, pointing out that it had previously held that McHaffie does not bar such claims.

The McHaffie case has been helpful to defendant trucking companies from disputes over what documents need to be produced to what expert opinions can be communicated to the jury.  We are left to wonder whether Missouri’s state courts will follow the lead of the federal district courts sitting in Missouri.  A wholesale abandonment of the rule in McHaffie would be a most prejudicial development for trucking companies and their insurers in Missouri and would result in increased litigation costs and the introduction of inflammatory evidence to juries.

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