Third Party Liability in North Carolina Car Accident Cases Discussed in Arvizu v. Puckett

This case illustrates the extensive confusion that can arise when determining liability in North Carolina car accident cases. If you have been involved in a car accident, it is important to have an experienced Carolina injury attorney to help you identify the liable parties in your lawsuit.
Arvizu, et al. v. Puckett stems from a car accident between Cantu and Juana Arvizu (plaintiff). Cantu was driving a pickup truck owned by Puckett Auto Sales while he was working for the Montgomery County Auto Auction (MCAA). The question for the court centered on whether a person can be under the control of two parties simultaneously. Basically, the court looks to the elements of the principal-agent relationship.

Agency law is an area of law governing liability impositions on third parties for the negligence of their employee. Essentially, an employer can be held liable for the negligent conduct of their employee where the employee was acting in furtherance of the employer’s business or where the employee had the actual or inherent authority to act negligently.

In order to determine which parties can be held liable in this personal injury action, the court looked to the nature of Cantu’s work with MCAA and Puckett. Puckett had a longstanding commercial relationship with MCAA. When the pickup truck did not sell at the action, Puckett gave MCAA the authority to deliver this pickup to another auction house. MCAA then ordered their employee Cantu to drive this pickup to the second auction house. However, as Cantu traveled to this second auction house he was involved in a car accident with plaintiff causing injuries to plaintiff and her son. Plaintiff sued MCAA, Puckett, and Cantu.

This case led the court to determine who could be held vicariously liable for Cantu’s negligence. The court answered this by analyzing three questions; who was Cantu’s employer, Cantu was transporting the pickup for the benefit of whom, and who was in control of Cantu.

The jury in this case found that Cantu was not Puckett’s employee but MCAA’s. Next it was determined that Cantu, was transporting the vehicle for Puckett’s benefit and was thus under Puckett’s control during his mission of transporting this vehicle. Lastly, the jury found that MCAA was also transporting the vehicle for Puckett’s benefit and subject to Puckett’s control. Because the last two questions are so similar the state Supreme Court had to determine whether these threshold questions were too materially similar.

Where two findings conflict as to the same material fact, the court has to determine whether the conflict is considered “fatal” to the entry of judgment. The party claiming a conflict must prove that one of the findings requires a different judgment. The court held that because it was found that Cantu was under Puckett’s control while transporting the pickup, this sufficed in the establishment of nonemployee mission liability. This type of liability exists where there exists a subagency relationship. As applied to the facts of the case, MCAA was working for Puckett; Puckett was in control of the transporting of the pickup truck; and the car accident with the plaintiff’s occurred while Puckett was in control. Because of these facts, the court held that Cantu and Puckett were in a subagency relationship which imposed vicarious liability on Puckett.

Further, the court found that MCAA was working for Puckett and therefore vicarious liability imposition was acceptable. Because there was a different theory for liability for MCAA and Puckett, the court found that they both can be held liable.

If you have been injured contact North Carolina injury attorneys at Lee Law Offices to schedule a free appointment today. Call 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Arvizu, et al. v. Puckett, et al., No. 11-0023 (Tex. S.Ct. Mar. 30, 2012).

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