Alabama Court of Civil Appeals Reverses Finding of Employer-Employee Relationship
On January 28, 2011 the Court of Civil Appeals released its opinion in Susan Schein Chrysler Dodge v. Rushing wherein it addressed the issue of whether an injured worker was an employee as that term is contemplated by the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act
The evidence presented at trial showed that Rushing was seriously injured when a vehicle he was delivering to the Susan Schein Chrysler-Dodge automobile dealership was involved in collision. Rushing was one of numerous retirees who supplemented their retirement income by transferring vehicles to and from Birmingham area car dealerships, including Susan Schein on an as-needed basis. A former inventory control manager for Susan Schein testified that when the dealership did not have a specific vehicle to meet a customer’s request, he would locate the vehicle at another dealership, and send someone to retrieve the vehicle and drive it back to the dealership. Rushing testified that he received a call from someone associated with Schein asking him to transfer a pickup truck from a dealership in Jacksonville, Florida to Schein in Birmingham, Alabama. Rushing was provided with the make, model, and vehicle identification number of the truck, documents pertaining to insurance and title, and directions to the Jacksonville dealership. Rushing was told to go to the Schein dealership, where Schein provided him with a vehicle to travel to Jacksonville with another so Rushing could drive the truck back to Schein. Rushing was free to take any route he wished to Jacksonville, and Schein did not impose any rules or guidelines concerning the delivery of the vehicle except that it had to be delivered in a reasonable amount of time and that Rushing obey all traffic regulations.
The trial court found that at the time of the accident, Rushing was an employee of Schein for purposes of his claim for workers’ compensation benefits. In reaching its decision, the trial court relied on the ruling in Ex parte Curry, 607 So. 2d 230 (Ala. 1992). In Curry, the Alabama Supreme Court held that an injured truck driver was an employee, not an independent contractor, where the defendant employer booked the contracts for the cargo the driver hauled, exercised control over the details of the delivery of the cargo, provided the truck and other equipment to the driver, and controlled payment from the customer. However, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, relying on the holding in Sartin v. Madden, 955 So. 2d 1024, 1027 (Ala. Civ. App. 2006). The court in Sartin established that "the retention of control necessary to establish employee status is determined on a case-by-case basis" and "no one fact by itself can create an employer-employee relationship.
Although Schein provided Rushing with a vehicle to travel to Jacksonville, a dealer tag, and insurance, the Court of Appeals concluded that Schein’s control over Rushing extended no further than directing what Rushing was ultimately to accomplish - the transfer of the vehicle. Rushing was free to accept or decline any particular transfer, could choose the dealerships he drove for, could choose the other driver who traveled to Jacksonville with him, and could choose the route he took to and from dealerships and any stops along the way. The Court of Appeals determined that the record clearly indicated that Schein did not retain control over Rushing and that neither Schein nor Rushing intended there to be an employer-employee relationship between the parties.