There are some specific instances in which an employer may be held liable for the acts of their employee. The legal doctrine ”respondeat superior,” or “let the superior answer,” is a legal theory that holds employers responsible for the negligent actions of their employees.

Generally speaking, an employer will be held liable for the actions of their employee if that employee was:

  • Performing their job duties;
  • Conducting company business; and/or
  • Otherwise acting on behalf of their employer when an incident took place.

However, if the employee was not acting within the scope of their job duties, the employer may not be held liable. The scope of employment will be further discussed later on.

This rule is intended to hold employers responsible for the cost of doing business, which includes the cost of employee misconduct, negligence, or carelessness.

Some examples of different situations in which an employer may be liable include:

  • When a restaurant promises delivery within 30 minutes or the next order is free, and the delivery driver hits a pedestrian while driving in order to beat the time deadline, the employer will most likely be liable for the pedestrian’s injuries;
  • If a business issues cell phones to all of their employees allowing them to call into the office, and an employee hits a pedestrian while simultaneously driving and using the cell phone to speak with the office, the employer could be liable for the pedestrian’s injuries; and/or
  • A company hires a fumigator to spray the office with powder pesticides, and the next day several employees fall ill from the fumes and are sent home. If one of those employees hits a pedestrian on the way home while experiencing dizziness from work, the employer is likely to be held liable.

When an employer is sued under the legal theory of respondeat superior, the victim of their employee generally need not prove that the employer should have known that the employee would cause harm, if the employee caused the injury while acting within the scope of their employment.

What Is Vicarious Liability?

Another legal theory under which an employer may be held liable for their employee’s actions would be vicarious liability. Also known as imputed liability, this is a legal concept that holds one individual accountable for the actions of another. Simply put, the employer could be held liable for any damages or injuries resulting from an employee’s negligent actions. Vicarious liability may apply to various types of legal relationships; however, it is most frequently associated with the employer-employee relationship governed by employment law.

This legal theory applies when an employee commits a negligent act while on the job, and that act is considered to be unlawful as well as causing harm to another person. To reiterate, as long as the act is committed during the course of employment and within the scope of the employee’s job, vicarious liability could apply to their employer. This allows injured people to sue an employer, which is considerably more likely to have greater financial resources than the employee who actually caused the injury.

What Is Scope Of Employment?

The legal scope of employment refers to the range of activities that an employee is reasonably expected to do as part of their job. Within this range of activities, their employer may be held liable for the employee’s actions when a third party is injured by the employee’s conduct.

An example of this would be if a gallon of milk falls off of the shelf while a grocery store employee is stocking the shelf, and it hurts a customer. The employer may be liable for those injuries. The employer could also be held liable for an employee who acts in a negligent way. To expand on the above example, say the store employee spilled some milk in the aisle and failed to clean it up, and that caused a customer to slip and fall. In this example, the employee was negligent within the scope of their employment, and as such their employer could be held liable.

When Could An Employer Be Held Vicariously Liable For Their Employee’s Actions?

An example of when an employer could be held vicariously liable for their employee’s actions would be when an employee is tasked with operating heavy machinery as part of their job. During their assigned work hours, the employee shows up intoxicated and continues to operate the machinery, injuring someone else in the process. Based on the scope of employment and vicarious liability, as well as a few other factors, their employer will most likely be held vicariously liable.

More specifically, an employer could be held vicariously liable for an employee’s actions when:

  • An employer knowingly hires an unqualified employee that causes harm because of their lack of skills;
  • An employee was or became unfit for a position, either mentally or physically, and a supervisor was aware but allowed them to continue working regardless;
  • The employer failed to provide adequate supervision over an employee, which resulted in an injury;
  • The employer has either insufficient or no policies or procedures addressing workplace safety, which causes significant damages or injuries to occur;
  • The employer is aware of harassment occurring in the workplace, but does nothing to prevent, stop, or correct the harmful behavior; and
  • The employer failed to properly train or direct employees in terms of their assigned job duties, resulting in injuries and/or damages.

It is important to note that these are but a few of the primary examples of when an employer could be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees. You should contact an employment attorney for more information regarding a vicarious liability claim.

Are There Any Employer Defenses Against A Vicarious Liability Claim?

There are some defenses against a vicarious liability claim that an employer may assert, depending on the circumstances. An example of this would be if an employee commits a harmful act that causes injury to another person, but it happens outside their scope of employment on what is known as a frolic or detour.

A frolic is said to have happened when an employee makes a serious departure from their work responsibilities, and a detour occurs when only a minor departure from their assigned work tasks is made. The employer cannot be held responsible for the employee’s conduct under these circumstances.

Other defenses may include:

  • The employee’s conduct was not within the scope of their employment;
  • The employer had no knowledge and did not approve of such conduct;
  • The employer acted reasonably to prevent and correct any harmful actions from happening; and/or
  • The employee unreasonably failed to use any preventive or corrective measures that were offered by their employer, in an attempt to reduce or avoid the possibility of causing harm.

An employer is not generally vicariously liable for the actions of an independent contractor. As such, another defense that an employer may use against a claim for vicarious liability would be that the employee is actually not an employee and is instead an independent contractor.

Do I Need An Attorney For Employment Vicarious Liability?

If you are involved with a matter concerning vicarious liability, you should contact an experienced and local workers compensation lawyer. An attorney can inform you of your rights and whether you have a claim. However, if you are the party who is being sued by another party for vicarious liability, you should contact a local personal injury lawyer. An attorney can also determine whether there are any available legal defenses, and will be able to represent you in court, as needed.