When you or a loved one have been injured in an accident, there are a number of possible defendants in the lawsuit. In the best-case scenario, there is a company that can be held liable for the wrongful acts of their employees.
The legal doctrine of respondeat superior could help families recover for their injuries from a company that has deeper pockets to pay for their legal liability than an individual defendant.
The Legal Doctrine of Respondeat Superior
Respondeat superior applies when there is an employment relationship between the company and the employee. When the company has a worker doing a job, that employee is an agent of the company.
The translation of the Latin term “respondeat superior” means to let the master answer. It would be unfair for the employee to be performing assigned duties on behalf of their company and not to have their employer answer.
At its core, tort law is about fairness. When the principal controls actions, this is called agency. They must pay for an employee’s act that is negligent and injures someone else because they are acting on behalf of the company.
Why Should Courts Hold the Master Liable?
In order to fully understand why the employer should be liable for such acts, it is important to take a trip back to seventeenth century England. When it comes to a common law doctrine that governs court cases today, this is where many things originate.
An English court mentioned this doctrine almost in passing in a 1698 case. The judge said that the master would be responsible for the acts of a servant if their cart ran over another and spilled the wine in that cart. The court also said that if a cart ran over a boy, the master would be responsible for the negligence of their servant.
Over three centuries later, the doctrine is still the same. It has been distilled down to something as simple as this: An injured party can sue an employer when the employee committed a wrongful act within the scope of employment.
When Does Respondeat Superior Apply?
It would be unfair to make employers responsible for every single thing that the employee does from the second that they begin work until the end. There are times when workers may be doing their own thing, even when on the job.
The classic example is when an employee takes the company car or truck to run their own personal errand. This is usually not within the scope of their employment. They are acting on their own behalf.
The business only employs them to work for the benefit of the employer, so there is no agency here. Therefore, to the extent that the employee is doing something personal, their employer would not be responsible. This generally means:
- Workers who are coming or going to work are not on the job at the time of the incident, and the company would not be responsible for injuries caused then
- When the employee is doing something that is not their job, the theory of respondeat superior does not apply
What Is Within the Scope of an Employment Relationship?
Here are some examples of things workers do that could mean that businesses are liable:
- A delivery person runs a red light and strikes a car
- A truck driver runs another driver off the road
- The hospital is legally responsible when the doctor has committed medical malpractice
- A security guard oversteps their job and commits assault or battery
The employee would need to be performing a task for their employer or doing something on company time for respondeat superior liability to attach.
How Respondeat Superior Applies to Independent Contractors
One trick that companies have turned to more often recently is designating people doing work as independent contractors. This impacts the legal relationship between the two. You see this in industries such as ridesharing and trucking. These businesses do this for many reasons, the most important of these are to pay the people less and escape liability for their acts.
Just because a business claims that someone is an independent contractor does not always make it true. You would need to show that the employer controls the actions of the so-called independent contractor. Another alternate way of holding a company liable in respondeat superior cases when they claim they are not an employer is to sue them for negligent hiring or training.
The Elements of a Respondeat Superior Case
Here is what you would need to show in order to prove a respondeat superior claim. While the elements may appear simple, you should be prepared that the company may try to fight.
- There was an employment relationship between the business and employee
- The corporate agent was negligent
- The act was within the scope of his or her employment
The Particular Facts Must Involve Negligence
Many people will get caught up in the fact that they are suing a company that they will forget that they still need to prove negligence. The principal must still be responsible for something.
Namely, the agent’s actions involved negligence when they were performing duties on behalf of their employer. As a reminder, here are the four parts of the negligence test:
- The other party owed you a duty of care
- They breached the duty of care by acting unreasonably under the circumstances
- You suffered an injury
- You would not have been injured had it not been for the actions of the defendant
It is only after you show that the employee was negligent that you could then get to whether they were acting within the scope of employment. First, you need to look at the agent’s behavior.
Why You Want to Sue an Employer
There is one primary reason why you would want to hold an employer liable in a tort case: there is the possibility that you could get more money for your claim.
To be clear, there are not different values for your case when you are suing a person versus when you are suing an employer. The difference lies in the coverage that the defendant has and their ability to pay the judgment.
Judgments May Be Easier to Enforce Against an Employer
Individuals may be required to carry insurance, but their level of coverage may vary. In an auto accident, some may have that cut-rate insurance that television commercials advise you against getting.
In other words, you never know the exact level of coverage until you go to file a claim. If your injuries are worth more than the policy maximum, you will have a judgment against the individual defendant, but these are not the easiest to collect.
When you are suing a corporate entity in a personal injury case, you can expect there to be more insurance coverage. After all, the company has more to lose. This is why you see larger settlements in cases like truck accidents and medical malpractice. Even if your verdict goes above the maximum insurance coverage, you can go after company assets.
Companies May Fight Harder in Respondeat Superior Cases
The employer’s business could be at risk depending on how much you are seeking in the lawsuit. There have been numerous reports of recent “nuclear verdicts” in the trucking industry that have put these companies out of business. They may be fighting for their own corporate lives.
In addition, their insurance company will not readily write a very large check up to the policy maximum. You can count on very close scrutiny of your claim with some high-powered lawyers potentially opposing you.
This is why you need an attorney client relationship with a strong trial lawyer of your own to fight for your legal interests.
How Companies Might Defend Against a Respondeat Superior Personal Injury Case
The defendant may focus on the employee’s job description to argue that the alleged acts were outside the scope of employment. They may ask questions about when did the acts occur, trying to prove that it was outside work time.
Either way, you should prepare for having a fight on your hands when you are trying to prove respondeat superior liability and corporate control.
Attorneys Helping Injured Clients
The attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers provide legal advice and help when you or a loved one have been injured in an accident. We could help you recover damages when someone else was responsible for your injuries.
We understand agency law and how to hold companies legally responsible for acts that occur within the scope of a worker’s employment. We could help negotiate matters of insurance coverage or take your case to court if we cannot reach a settlement agreement.