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Respondeat superior liability in fleets – Obligations and regulations of fleet managers

Did you know a company is liable for all personal injuries and property damage arising from its own fleet? Instances include accidents caused by company car drivers holding invalid or expired driver’s licenses, or if it is proven license checks had not been conducted on the company’s drivers? Respondeat superior liability is one of the fundamental topics in fleet management – because a safe fleet is also a cost-efficient fleet. But what are fleet managers obliged with regard to respondeat superior liability? Our checklist provides an overview.

What exactly is respondeat superior liability?

Respondeat superior liability states that vehicle owners can be held responsible in the event of damage, regardless of whether they are personally at fault. The Cologne Higher Regional Court ruled [that] an individual is the “owner [when he] has the vehicle in use not only temporarily on his own account and in his own interest and has the power of disposal over it.”1
This definition applies to all companies that operate a vehicle fleet, regardless of size or whether the vehicles are purchased or leased. Legislation does not differentiate between having three company cars or 500 pool vehicles when it comes to enforcing respondeat superior liability obligations.

From a purely legal point of view, the management or the board of directors is considered the owner of a company vehicle, even if they do not use the car themselves. In many companies, respondeat superior liability obligations are delegated to fleet managers, fleet officers or, in rare cases, to external persons. The delegation of respondeat superior liability obligations needs to be carefully considered as not every person is suited to the position. Moreover, there are legal pitfalls.

The delegation of respondeat superior liability duties should meet the following requirements:

  • It must be clearly and unambiguously stipulated in writing, preferably in the fleet officer’s employment contract or by means of a separate contract stipulating the delegation of respondeat superior liability obligation to the person named.
  • All necessary tasks and competences should be delineated in the said contract.
  • The character and skills of the appointed individual should not in any way clash with the duties to be performed.
  • Automatic delegation occurs only if the person in question has been performing these tasks for over 5 years and/or is professionally qualified to do so.

Noncompliance with these points is considered an “organizational negligence” and the management is then held liable.

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Checklist “How respondeat superior liability works”

As a fleet manager, it is essential for the safety of the entire fleet that regular checks and inspections are carried out by you.

This includes:

  • Receiving and inspecting vehicle documents
  • Inspecting the cars for any damages or defects, as well as ensuring regular maintenance is performed on the vehicles, including timely vehicle inspections
  • Checking drivers’ health and character suitability
  • Instructing drivers in the operation of vehicles (professionally and technically)
  • Execution of accident prevention driver instructions

Company Car Driver

Mandatory driver’s license check

  • twice a year
  • 21 Road Transport Act
  • Driver’s license and permit check during company vehicle handover
  • Legally compliant and tamper-proof documentation

Mandatory driver training

  • once a year
  • Occupational Health and Safety Act, Operational Safety Ordinance, German Statutory Accident Insurance Reg. 70
  • Instructing of driver in the operation of company cars
  • Legally compliant and tamper-proof documentation

Company Car

Mandatory vehicle inspection

  • once a year
  • Occupational Health and Safety Act, Operational Safety Ordinance, German Statutory Accident Insurance Reg. 70
  • Inspection of the operationally safe condition of the vehicle, operational safety = occupational and traffic safety
  • Legally compliant and tamper-proof documentation

Obligation to visually inspect vehicles

  • Prior to journey by the driver
  • Check for obvious defects on the vehicle
  • Instructing of driver in the operation of company cars
  • Legally compliant and tamper-proof documentation

What happens when fleet managers fail to comply with their respondeat superior liability obligations?

Since the safety of human lives is at stake when it comes to observing the respondeat superior liability obligations, lawmakers will come down harshly when these are neglected or failed to be complied with. An example of a violation of the respondeat superior liability obligations is when a company car driver is caught driving under the influence of alcohol and the driver’s license is revoked. The fleet officer is then duty-bound to prohibit the driver from access to the company car and make sure the individual does not drive until their license is returned.

Similarly, if a driver is unfit to drive due to a specific illness in conjunction with medication, the driver’s license may be revoked. Failure to promptly identify and correct defects in vehicles may also be considered a failure to comply with the respondeat superior liability obligations in the event of damage. The penalties for failing to do so are both criminal and civil and may translate into fines of several thousand euros. Especially for small fleets with a handful of vehicles, this can quickly tear a big hole in the budget.

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How digital assistants aid fleet managers to fulfill respondeat superior liability obligations

The use of software in fleets has long since ceased to be a rarity. More and more providers are becoming ever aware of the issue of respondeat superior liability in fleets and offer apps and desktop software as remedy. Digital solutions, such as electronic driver’s license checks, make sense in two ways: for fleet managers, they offer legal certainty in documentation while for company car drivers, they provide a form of control and real time savings. No tedious appointment coordination, instead quick and easy check anytime anywhere. In short, greater security and efficiency for both sides.

  1. Cologne High Regional Court, ruling as of 08 August 1993 – Ss 414 / 93

Editor’s note: This article does not replace legal advice. If you have any questions about a concern in your fleet, please contact your legal counsel.