Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Viability and Scope of Gant: Negligent Training Claims Against Employers for Employee’s Motor Vehicle Accident

In Gant v. L.U. Transport, Inc., 331 Ill. App. 3d 924, 930 (1st Dist. 2002), the Appellate Court held that a plaintiff injured in a motor vehicle accident cannot maintain an action for negligent hiring, negligent retention, or negligent entrustment against the defendant’s employer if the employer accepts responsibility for the employee’s conduct. In other words, once an employer admits responsibility for any negligence of its employee, liability under alternate theories of negligent entrustment, hiring, or retention should be dismissed as irrelevant. Id. at 927-28, 930. Relying upon Gant, employers have successfully sought dismissal of alternate theories of negligent hiring, supervision, and entrustment claims where there is no dispute as to agency. Employers have similarly successfully cited Gant to secure dismissal of negligent training claims.

But should negligent training be treated differently? The Illinois Supreme Court is mulling over that question. On May 19, 2021, the Illinois Supreme Court heard oral argument in McQueen v. Pan-Oceanic Engineering Company, Inc. (Ill. Sup. Ct. No. 126666). (The oral arguments are found here: https://www.illinoiscourts.gov/courts/supreme-court/oral-argument-audio-and-video/.)

The Case

In McQueen, Plaintiff sued a truck driver for negligence and Pan-Oceanic Engineering as vicariously liable for its driver’s negligence. Plaintiff also claimed Pan-Oceanic was negligent and reckless in failing to train its drivers on how to properly load a trailer and secure a load. Pan-Oceanic admitted responsibility for its driver’s conduct, but the training counts were not dismissed. A jury found the driver not liable (and therefore Pan-Oceanic not vicariously liable), but it nevertheless found Pan-Oceanic liable for failing to properly train the driver. The jury returned a verdict against Pan-Oceanic in the amount of $167,227.45 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. The trial court found that the verdicts were not legally inconsistent because the training counts against Pan-Oceanic were the result of Pan-Oceanic’s own independent tort, unrelated to any negligence of the driver.

Pan-Oceanic appealed, and the Appellate Court, relying upon Gant, reversed and remanded, holding that the verdicts were legally inconsistent. McQueen v. Pan-Oceanic Engineering Company, Inc., 2020 IL App (1st) 190202, ⁋⁋ 56, 67.  The Appellate Court declined to treat negligent training any differently than the negligent hiring entrustment, and retention claims in Gant. Id. at ⁋ 44. The Illinois Supreme Court granted Plaintiff’s petition for leave to appeal.

The holding in Gant has never been expressly addressed by the Supreme Court, and a negligent training theory was not at issue in Gant. Indeed, in McQueen, Plaintiff argues that negligent training claims are distinguishable from negligent hiring and retention claims because the latter are necessarily dependent upon driver liability. Stated otherwise, if an employee is not negligent in causing the accident, the employer cannot logically be liable for negligent hiring or retention. Training, however, is different, claims Plaintiff, in that negligent training is not dependent upon the driver’s negligence. An employer may improperly train its employees, and an accident may proximately result, irrespective of the employee’s negligence.

In McQueen, the tractor-trailer driver allegedly failed to properly secure a load. The driver did not know how to secure the load because Pan-Oceanic failed to train the driver. The plaintiff argues it is entirely consistent to find the driver not liable (as a reasonable person would not know the load was improperly secured absent training) and the trucking company liable for failing to teach the driver how to secure the load.

The Takeaway

While the Supreme Court has yet to issue its opinion in McQueen, it is safe to say that the Court’s ruling could have a significant impact on trucking and transportation litigation. If the Court finds that Gant does not extend to claims for negligent training, employers should expect to see an increase in such claims and should expect that training programs will be even more closely scrutinized in motor vehicle cases. Of course, to the extent the Supreme Court adopts the reasoning of Gant—or even extends the reasoning to claims for negligent training—defendant employers will have definitive authority to support the dismissal of these alternate claims.

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Kerri Forsythe

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