Respondeat Superior Liability

One of the hazards of having employees use vehicles to perform work for you is possible respondeat superior liability. Unlike some of the other liabilities of having employees use your vehicles, you face respondeat superior liability even if your employees get into accidents while driving their own vehicles. In fact, you'll find that respondeat superior liability can come into play after any unfortunate incident not just auto accidents where an employee has harmed someone else or someone else's property.

What it means. Respondeat superior is a Latin term that lawyers sometimes use. The term may be "translated" as:

If your employee,

  1. is at fault for an accident (or an incident); and
  2. was doing work for you at the time of the accident/incident (lawyers will often refer to this as "acting within the scope of employment"); then
  3. you may be held liable for damages arising from the accident/incident.

The first reaction many people have after respondeat superior is explained to them is to exclaim something like, "That doesn't sound fair! Do you mean to tell me that if a painter runs a red light on the way to do a job and gets into an accident that the painter's employer is liable? A boss can't sit in the passenger's seat next to every employee and tell them how to drive! What will those slithering lawyers think of next . . . "

Why it's the law. Actually, respondeat superior liability isn't new. And the idea may make more sense to you if you think about this: suppose the painter in our example showed up at your house and instead of painting the house white, like you ordered, painted it in a nice florescent lime? Would you be more willing to hold his employer liable now? Probably. Yet a boss can't always afford to sit and watch an employee brush each stroke of paint onto a building. Clearly, at some point the law has to draw a line. In most states, this "line" is that employers will be held liable for wrongful acts committed by their employees if those acts were committed within the scope of employment.

What you can do. The key to reducing your liability under respondeat superior is found in the words "within the scope of employment." (Some courts prefer wording like "furthering a purpose of the employer.") Thus, defending a respondeat superior claim typically involves one of the following options: