Respondeat Superior (Latin for “let the master answer”) is a type of vicarious liability, and is also known as the “master-servant” rule. This legal doctrine states that an employer of a negligent defendant can be liable for the defendant’s actions in certain situations. This means that the employer can be responsible for the actions of the employee even if the employer did not commit a negligent act. One important point to remember is that even if the employer is liable for the defendant’s negligence the defendant is also still personally liable for his or her own torts.
When does Respondeat Superior Apply?
Respondeat Superior applies in cases where the plaintiff proves three things:
- The injury occurred while the defendant was working for the employer.
- The defendant was acting within the scope of her employment.
- The defendant was performing an act in furtherance of the employer’s interest.
In order to prove that the injury occurred while the defendant was working for the employer, the plaintiff must show that the defendant was an employee of the employer.. Sometimes employers try to escape respondeat superior liability by arguing that the “employee” was an independent contractor.
Generally, employers are not liable for negligent acts of independent contractors. In order to determine if an individual was acting as an employee as opposed to an independent contractor, courts look for control. Generally, courts ask whether the employer could tell the defendant where to work, when to work, and how to complete the job. A good personal injury lawyer will also look for evidence such as paychecks, employment contracts, etc. to establish the employer, employee relationship.
Its important to know that the fact that a contract states that a defendant is an independent contractor is not dispositive. Courts have held employers responsible for the acts of defendants who were labeled as independent contractors when the employer had adequate control of the defendant’s work.
Next, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant was acting within the scope of her employment. A defendant acts within the scope of his or her employment if the defendant was completing a task that the defendant would ordinarily do while working for the employer.
Lastly, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant was performing an act in furtherance of the employer’s interest. In order to prove that the defendant was performing an act in furtherance of the employer’s interest the plaintiff asks whether the employer benefited from the defendant’s actions.
Example of a Case Where Respondeat Superior Applies:
Allison works for ABC Trucking. Dan owns ABC Trucking. One of Allison’s main responsibilities is to deliver packages to customers. One day Allison is driving a company car in downtown Fort Worth. Allison is late to deliver some packages and decides to run a red light. Martha had a green light and collided with Allison’s truck. Dan would be liable for Allison’s negligence.
Martha’s injury occurred while Allison was working for Dan. Allison was on the clock when she was delivering packages for ABC trucking. Allison was acting within the scope of her employment because she was completing a task that she routinely completes as part of her job. Lastly, Allison was performing an act in furtherance of Dan’s interest because Dan was receiving payment from the customers that were on Allison’s delivery route.
Martha could use the doctrine of Respondeat Superior to hold Dan liable for Allison’s negligence. Martha could also sue Allison for her own negligence.
Example of a Case Where Respondeat Superior Does Not Apply:
George owns XYZ extermination. George hires Hector as an independent contractor. George does not tell Hector when to work or what equipment to use while working. Hector is on his way to a job when he decides that he needs to run a few personal errands. He stops by to pick up his dry cleaning. While he is in the parking lot, he hits Hilda’s car. George would not be liable for Hector’s negligence.
A court is unlikely to determine that Hector is George’s employee because George did not have sufficient control of Hector. Hector was not acting within the scope of his employment because he was completing a personal errand. Picking up his dry cleaning was not something that he was assigned to do by George. Also, Hector was not performing an act in furtherance of George’s interest because George was not receiving any benefit from Hector performing personal errands.
Hilda will have to sue Hector personally in order to recover for her losses.