Respondeat superior is a legal doctrine. It holds an employer legally responsible for an employee’s wrongful conduct while acting within the scope of their employment. Both state and federal laws use this definition of respondeat superior in the criminal and civil context.
Because this concept dates back hundreds of years, it’s also known as the master-servant rule. In other words, the master is held accountable for the actions of the servant.
When a civil or criminal claim against an employer is based on the concept of respondeat superior, the person making a claim must show:
If the person making a claim proves both of these elements, the employer can be held liable for the employee’s actions. In a civil case, this means the employer has to pay some or all of the damages.
The biggest of respondeat superior’s advantages is that it allows injured parties to go after employers, who generally have deeper pockets than their employees.
Victims also tend to have better luck recovering judgments from employers than employees. Most employers carry insurance policies that cover accidents and other errors caused by their staff. If a victim makes a successful claim, the insurance company pays to compensate them.
What are respondeat superior’s main drawbacks? From a business owner’s perspective, respondeat superior may seem unfair because it imposes liability on them even though they can’t possibly supervise every moment of an employee’s day.
The theory of respondeat superior also won’t always work to impose liability on a business that employs independent contractors. However, if you can show that the employer actually controls the actions of the independent contractor (in other words, show that the person actually is an employee), then the business may be liable.
A typical example of this doctrine applies is when an employee hits someone or something while driving a company vehicle. If the employee was going from the office to a plumbing job, the plumbing company is probably on the hook for damages. If the employee took a detour to buy a soccer ball for his son’s game later that day, the company likely isn’t liable because the employee was not acting within the scope of his employment.
Similarly, a hospital could be sued for an error made by a surgeon during an operation. But if the surgeon punched someone in the parking lot as he walked into the hospital, the hospital might be off the hook.
If you are an employer, you may be wondering what you can do to protect your business against these claims. You have a few options.
First, update your written employment policies to clarify that employees cannot use company vehicles or equipment for personal use.
Second, make sure your policies require compliance with all relevant laws. This covers everything from a company driver obeying traffic laws to a manicurist following health and safety guidelines.
Finally, confirm that you have good insurance coverage. Look carefully at your policy to see if it sufficiently covers the damages resulting from employee accidents and other wrongdoing.
Respondeat superior’s meaning involves holding an employer responsible for injuries or property damage caused by an employee while the employee is working. Employers should keep this concept in mind when updating their company policies and procedures.
Disclaimer: The content on this page is for information purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax, or accounting advice. If you have specific questions about any of these topics, seek the counsel of a licensed professional.
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