Emanuele Secci was driving his motorcycle through an intersection in the City of West Hollywood when a taxi driven by Aram Tonakanian coming from the opposite direction, turned left directly in front of him causing injury.
At the time Tonakanian was driving a green and white taxi marked with a United Independent Taxi Drivers, Inc. insignia.
The jury found Tonakanian to be United’s agent, but not an employee. The court granted United’s motion for judgment, and Secci appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed in the published opinion of Secci v United Independent Taxi Drivers Inc. The case involves the application of the rules for establishing an independent contractor status
Like other owner-drivers, Tonakanian owned his taxi and set his own hours. Tonakanian’s contract with United stated he was an independent contractor. Drivers paid monthly dues and other fees to cover United’s expenses.
United provided marketing and advertising. Each United taxi had the company’s phone number painted on it. If a customer called the number, a dispatcher would enter the location information into a computer, and the computer would send out a dispatch request. In order to receive dispatch requests, a driver would check into the zone where he or she was located. Drivers were free to accept or reject dispatch requests, and could pick up passengers on the street, so long as they were licensed to accept fares within that city.
Drivers were required to use uniform credit card and dispatch equipment chosen by United. Credit card charges were initially paid to United, which would deduct credit card processing fees, monthly dues, and a small fee for accounting. Taxi rates were set by meter. Drivers were not free to charge flat or discounted rates. United required its drivers to accept vouchers and coupons that drivers could later submit to United for payment. If a driver transferred ownership of a United taxi, the buyer and seller had to notify United and pay a $500 transfer fee.
United provided a training manual to each of its drivers. It required drivers to keep a copy of the manual in the taxi and to complete a training course before taking the city’s licensing test. The training manual provided specific information about the drivers’ appearance, including a dress code, as well as specifics about driving safely, conducting themselves while waiting in taxi lines, and interacting with passengers politely.
United drivers were expected to abide by the company’s rules and regulations, and drivers acknowledged their relationship with United could be terminated for violations of those rules.
A corporation may be held vicariously liable as a principal for the torts of its agents. (Meyer v. Holley (2003) 537 U.S. 280, 285 – 286.) “Whether a person performing work for another is an agent or an independent contractor depends primarily upon whether the one for whom the work is done has the legal right to control the activities of the alleged agent.”
In Yellow Cab Cooperative, Inc. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (1991) 226 Cal.App.3d 1288 (Yellow Cab), the court held a taxi driver who leased his taxi from the lessor taxi company was an employee, not an independent contractor, for the purpose of workers’ compensation law. (Discussing S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations, supra, 48 Cal.3d 341}
Viewed in the light most favorable to Secci, the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support a jury finding that Tonakanian was United’s agent and United was vicariously liable for Tonakanian’s acts.