By Terri Jo Neff
A jury can decide whether a Tucson business is vicariously liable for the 2018 death of a woman killed by one of the company’s employees, according to a recent decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals.
In May, the court unanimously overturned a 2020 decision by a Pima County judge who had ruled Casas Custom Floor Care was not responsible for the actions of its employee, Martin Montano, who caused the death of Samantha Jo Cravens after running a red light on his way to the company’s office.
According to court records, Montano left a job site at the end of his shift and headed to the Casas Custom office to fill out and correct his timesheet. During the drive Montano collided with a car driven by Cravens, 29, who suffered fatal injuries.
Michael Corey Cravens, Samantha’s husband, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Montano and his employer in April 2019. Court records show Montano settled with Cravens in late 2019 but Casas Custom contended the company was not liable for its employee’s conduct.
In January 2020, the Humphrey & Petersen Law Firm filed a motion for summary judgment on behalf of Casas Custom to have the employer dismissed from Cravens’ lawsuit. The company argued Montano “was not acting within the course and scope of employment” and that there was an absence of an employer’s “right of control” over the employee.
The motion for summary judgment was granted in May 2020 by Judge Brenden Griffin of the Pima County Superior Court and Casas Custom was dismissed from the lawsuit.
Cravens, who is represented by the law office of Mesch, Clark, and Rothschild, appealed the grant of summary judgment. On May 25, Vice Chief Judge Christopher Staring of the Arizona Court of Appeals authored a unanimous decision reversing Griffin’s dismissal order.
Staring wrote that an employer can be found vicariously liable for an employee’s work-related conduct if the employee was “acting within the scope of their employment.” Scope of employment is defined by the court as an employee performing work “assigned by the employer or engaging in a course of conduct subject to the employer’s control.”
The Court of Appeals found there is a material factual dispute in Cravens’ lawsuit about whether Montano’s conduct was outside the scope of his employment. That makes Casas Custom’s liability a question for a jury, not a judge, Staring wrote.
Casas Custom Floor Care did not petition the Arizona Supreme Court for review of the appellate decision. The Pima County Superior Court will be mandated in a few weeks to conduct further proceedings in accordance to the decision.
Public records show Cravens’ case has been now reassigned to Judge D. Douglas Metcalf. In April, Metcalf was asked by Cincinnati Indemnity Company to grant a motion of summary judgment for dismissal of another part of Cravens’ lawsuit. One of the issues is whether a “Morris Agreement” entered into by Montano to settle the portion of the case against him is enforceable.
According to the Arizona Supreme Court, an insurer like Cincinnati Indemnity can accept defense of a claim while still reserving its right to contest coverage. The insured also has the option to independently enter into a settlement, provided the insured continues to cooperate with the insurer during the litigation.
The settlement, known as a Morris Agreement, “must be made fairly, with notice to the insurer, and without fraud or collusion on the insurer” in order to be valid. An insurer is not bound to a Morris Agreement unless it is reasonable and prudent, something Metcalf is expected to rule on this summer.
In the meantime, the judge will hear arguments on July 23 concerning other pending motions involving Cincinnati Indemnity and Cravens.
Montano, 32, was criminally charged in November 2018 with failure to stop for a red light and causing an accident which resulted in death or serious injury. The case was prosecuted as a misdemeanor and ended in a plea by Montano in 2019 of guilty or responsible.
Details as to what sentence was imposed on Montano were not available from the Pima Justice Court as of press time but the longest jail sentence allowed for a misdemeanor is one year.