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Popejoy v. Steinle

    Brief Fact Summary. Connie Steinle (Ms. Steinle) and her daughter, while they were on the way to buy a calf, were involved in a car wreck with Richard Popejoy (Mr. Popejoy). Ms. Steinle was killed in the accident. The Plaintiffs, Mr. Popejoy and Doris Popejoy (Plaintiffs) brought a suit against the Defendants, personal representatives of Ms. Steinle’s husband’s estate (Defendants), under a joint venture theory.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. An interest in profit is necessary in order to impose vicarious liability on a party based on a joint venture theory.

    Facts. Ms. Steinle, accompanied by her daughter and niece, were traveling to Douglas, Wyoming to buy a calf for the daughter to raise on their ranch. During the trip, the truck Ms. Steinle was driving collided with a vehicle driven by Mr. Popejoy. Ms. Steinle was killed in the accident and Mr. Popejoy suffered injuries diagnosed as a muscle strain. Approximately fifteen months later, Mr. Popejoy underwent two neurosurgeries to fuse cervical vertebrae in response to continued pain in his neck and back. Mr. Popejoy unsuccessfully tried to reopen Ms. Steinle’s estate, which had been probated and closed a year earlier. Plaintiffs then filed a creditor’s claim against the estate of Ms. Steinle’s husband, William Steinle (Mr. Steinle), whom had died in the interim. After this claim was rejected, Plaintiffs filed a claim against the Defendants, claiming that Mr. and Mrs. Steinle were engaged in a joint venture when Ms. Steinle embarked on her business trip to pick up the daughter’s calf.

    Issue. Can the trip to pick up Ms. Steinle’s daughter’s calf be characterized as a joint venture with her husband, so as to impose vicarious liability on the Defendant’s representatives?

    Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
    * The terms joint venture and joint enterprise may be used interchangeably in situations such as the facts at hand. The burden of establishing the existence of a joint venture is upon the party asserting that the relationship exists. The Restatement of Torts [Restatement (Second) of Torts Section: 491 comment c at 548 (1965)] establishes four elements of a joint venture as: “(1) an agreement, express or implied, among the members of the group; (2) a common purpose to be carried out by the group; (3) a community or pecuniary interest in that purpose, among the members; and (4) an equal right to voice in the direction of the enterprise, which gives a right of equal control.”
    * Based on this statement and previous case law, an element of business, commercial or profit motive, is a requisite for a joint venture. Evidence in support of the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment suggests that Mr. Steinle did not ordinarily have any ownership interest in the cattle that his daughters and wife raised and owned. Also, that the sales proceeds from other livestock raised by the Steinle daughters in the past went directly to the children.
    * This evidence satisfied the requirement of establishing the nonexistence of any genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mr. and Mrs. Steinle were engaged in a joint venture. The burden then shifts to the party opposing summary judgment. Plaintiff submitted evidence from a certified public accountant convinced that Mr. and Mrs. Steinle were engaged in a joint venture. However, the judge believed that only a pecuniary interest and not an interest in profit was needed to show the existence of a joint venture.
    * No testimony suggested that anyone, but the daughter, had any pecuniary or financial interest in the calf the mother and daughter were on the way to purchase the day of the accident. The record shows that this trip was a family undertaking. This holding avoids the imposition of a commercial concept upon relationships not having these characteristics.

    Discussion. A joint enterprise or venture allows for vicarious liability to imposed on parties to the venture based upon theories of agency.


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