Course and Scope

Course and Scope

     This blog is intended to analyze and distinguish J.C. Penny Co. v. Gravelle and Prell Hotel Corp. v. Antonocci.  These Nevada Supreme Court cases contend primarily with the issue of course and scope.  In both cases which were heard in 1945 and 1970 respectively defendant employees battered respective plaintiffs during work hours.  The question in both cases became whether the employers of these employees would be held liable for their employee’s conduct.  Thus the question became whether the employees acted within the course and scope of their employment. 

     In the first case J.C. Penny Co. v Gravelle an employee took chase after a thief who had stolen merchandise.  The employee was successful in his apprehension of the thief at least until such time as a neutral third party, later to be plaintiff, interfered with such apprehension.  However the employee was still successful in recovering the stolen property.  As the employee returned to the department store with the merchandise he engaged in heated words with the plaintiff, who had obstructed the employee’s capture of the thief.  Hostile words soon turned to fists and the two men became engaged physically.  The engagement left the plaintiff beaten and bruised and the employee relatively unscathed.  On appeal the question became whether the employer could be held liable for its employee’s battery.

     The supreme considered whether the employee was within the scope of his employment while engaging in this battery of Plaintiff.  The employee testified that he thought it to be his “duty” to apprehend the thief.  The Supreme Court seemed to consider the employee as being within his Course and Scope all the way through his attempted apprehension of the thief as the employee was serving his master to such end.  However, after the employee had lost the thief but recaptured the stolen merchandise he became engaged in words with the plaintiff, who had obstructed the employee’s apprehension of the thief.  The court determined that the engagement of words and then fists between the employee and the plaintiff had nothing to do with the employee’s duties to his master.  That such words and ensuing altercation were nothing but a private beef at that time between the two.  Thus the court refused to find that the employee was within the course and scope of his employment, thus absolving the employer of liability. 

     Then, 25 years later the Nevada Supreme Court examines this course and scope argument again in Prell Hotel Corp. v. Antonocci.   The Prell case seems to expand the scope of liability by expanding what may be found to be within course and scope.  In Prell, a patron of a casino, while playing 21 at the casino, ridicules the dealer with hateful degrading names.  The dealer, after dealing each player a single card, strikes the patron with his fist, leaving the patron unconscious.   The patron of course sued both the dealer and the employing casino for his injuries.  The question again became whether the dealer acted within his course and scope of employment when he struck the patron. 

     The court in Prell seems to modify its analysis per J.C. Penny Co. v. Gravelle.  In J.C. Penny the court took note that the employee was not effectuating his duties when he battered the plaintiff.  That the employee was engaged in a private beef with plaintiff which had nothing to do with effectuating any duty or requirement of his employment.  With this same line of reasoning it would seem to make sense that the Prell court would find that the dealer was not within course and scope of employment when he punched the plaintiff.  The dealer, by punching the employee, was not effectuating any duty owed to his master.  The beef was a personal beef between the employee dealer and the patron.  Thus the court did seem to expand the scope of liability per the course and scope finding. 

     However, there were some distinguishing factors in the Prell case.  For instance, the court took note of the fact that the casino invited the patron onto its premises and that the casino was providing the patron with free alcohol.  Thus the court found that the casino owed the plaintiff a duty of care and protection.  Given this duty the court was more inclined to find that the employee was acting within the course and scope of employment.  The other major distinguishing factor in this case was that the dealer did not leave the table when he struck the Plaintiff.  This was not the case in J.C. Penny where the employee had left hotel property when the altercation occurred.