PORTLAND – Maine’s highest court on Wednesday reinstated a lawsuit targeting VIP Inc. over a fatal collision caused by one of its employees, but Chief Justice Leigh Saufley criticized the ruling as harmful to the state’s business climate.
In the 3-2 ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court overturned a judge’s conclusion that the crash occurred outside the employee’s scope of employment. The decision to overturn the summary judgment keeps the lawsuit alive.
The collision was caused when VIP employee Justin Laliberte’s vehicle drifted across the centerline after he had gone to Oxford Plains Speedway to help set up for a VIP-sponsored event, the 2002 “Show, Shine & Drag.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Howard Dana said there was a “genuine issue of material fact as to whether the travel was within the scope of Laliberte’s employment.” He was joined by Justices Susan Calkins and Warren Silver.
The ruling means the lawsuit can proceed to trial.
Laliberte, who worked in VIP’s warehouse in Lewiston, was one of several VIP workers who assisted in setting up for the event at the Oxford Plains Speedway. He and other hourly employees who volunteered for the assignment were given a T-shirt and $25.
The head-on collision happened as Laliberte was returning home after spending about an hour at the racetrack. Nancy Spencer was killed and her husband, James, and their daughter, Brittany, were injured in the crash.
In the lawsuit, James Spencer noted that the $25 was intended to reimburse the VIP hourly workers. Because of the compensation, and the fact Laliberte received workers’ compensation for his injuries, it can be argued that travel to and from the racetrack arose from his employment by VIP, James Spencer contended.
In her dissent, Saufley said the ruling could set a dangerous precedent for employers and that it “moves Maine out of step with tort law across the country.”
Saufley wrote that the collision was a tragedy but that the Spencers should seek compensation from Laliberte, not from VIP.
Courts across the country have repeatedly ruled that “a person who is going to or coming from work is responsible for his or her own actions,” she said.
“The decision of the court today may ultimately cause employers to become the insurer for all harm caused on the highways by their employees while driving to or from work,” Saufley wrote in the dissent in which she was joined by Justice Jon Levy.
The lawsuit names both VIP Inc. and Laliberte, but Laliberte’s insurance only covered claims of $100,000, which wasn’t enough to cover medical bills, said Sumner Lipman, an Augusta attorney who represents Brittany Spencer.
Lipman said there’s a difference between what Laliberte was doing and his normal commute to Lewiston because his work at the racetrack represented a “special assignment,” Lipman said.
“That’s beyond going to and from work in its usual location,” he said. Furthermore, the fact that Laliberte’s injuries were covered by workers’ comp reflects the nature of the assignment, he said.
Stephen Wade, who represents James Spencer, said the ruling is important because it gives workers extra protections in circumstances in which they’re asked to do something out of the ordinary, such as going to the racetrack.
“You’ve got Maine’s working class people making $7 or $8 an hour. An employer says, ‘Here’s some cash, go do this job for me.’ Then they say he’s a volunteer and he’s not really working. Then they hang him out to dry,” he said.