The law generally makes each person responsible for his or her actions. If the car you are driving crashes into another vehicle because you were not paying attention, the law makes you liable to pay compensation to anyone injured due to your negligent conduct. However, if the accident happened while you were making deliveries on behalf of your employer, the principle of respondeat superior could impose liability for the injuries suffered by the victim.
Health care is one industry in which the principle of respondeat superior is having a major impact. Doctors and other health care providers are, according to the laws existing throughout the United States, responsible for their negligent acts committed while rendering care and treatment to patients. Respondeat superior is being used by the victims of medical malpractice to hold not only the treating physician but also others, such as hospitals and medical practices, for the negligence of their employees.
Vicarious liability: Holding third parties liable
Imposing liability on someone who might have done nothing wrong might appear to be contrary to most legal principles. The doctrine of vicarious liability evolved because there are instances when the conduct of one person is so closely controlled by or related to another individual that it makes sense to link them for purposes of assessing liability.
For example, some states have enacted laws making parents vicariously liable for wrongs committed by their children on the theory that it is a parent’s responsibility to supervise his or her child. A trucking company that orders its driver to dump potentially hazardous materials in violation of the law could be held responsible for its drivers’ actions under the concept of vicarious liability.
Respondeat superior: Making employers liable
Respondeat superior is an extension of the principle of vicarious liability that holds an employer responsible for the conduct of an employee. The responsibility of the employer is dependent upon the ability of the injured party to prove negligence on the part of the employee. In other words, if there is not enough evidence to prove that an employee was negligent, then the case would have to be dismissed against the employer as well.
Of course, if there is evidence to prove negligence on the part of the employer independent from the actions of the employee, a case could be brought for damages for personal injuries directly against the employer. This might happen in a situation in which an accident happens involving a truck with faulty breaks. Even if the evidence does not establish negligent operation of the vehicle by the driver, an accident victim might have a claim directly against the trucking company for failing to properly maintain its vehicles.
Three conditions required to rely upon respondeat superior
The party in a lawsuit attempting to hold an employer vicariously liable for the actions of an employee must prove each of the following:
- The individual was an employee when the injury occurred
- The employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment
- The activities of the employee were a benefit to the employer
Proving that someone is an employee at the time of an accident is usually accomplished through payroll or other records obtained from the individual’s employer. It can also be proven through the testimony of anyone with knowledge of the relationship existing between the employee and the person or entity claimed to be the employer.
Proof of the fact that someone was acting within the scope of employment at the time of the occurrence could be more difficult to obtain by an injured person making a claim. A truck driver who stops to assist a motorist whose car broke down and causes damage while trying to repair it is not necessarily engaging in an activity for which he or she was hired by the trucking company, so liability might remain entirely with the truck driver for any negligence that caused the damage.
Acting outside of the scope of employment can be an issue in any profession or industry. Medical professionals on the staff of hospitals and medical centers could be considered as employees resulting in their employer being held liable for their actions. If a doctor employed by a hospital injures a patient while moonlighting at a local clinic that is not affiliated with the hospital, the activities would appear to be outside of the scope of the physician’s employment by the hospital and not subject to the application of respondeat superior.
When activities do not benefit the employer
The element of proving a claim under the theory of respondeat superior requiring evidence that an employee’s activities benefited the employer is heavily influenced by the facts and circumstances of each case. For example, a truck driver talking on a cellphone with his dispatcher to get the address of the location for the next delivery has an accident and injures another motorist. If the injured motorist can prove that the truck driver was working and making deliveries on behalf of his or her employer, the principle of respondeat superior could apply and allow the employer to be named in a lawsuit for damages.
There might be a different result if at the time of the accident the driver of the truck had interrupted his deliveries on behalf the trucking company to help a friend move some furniture. Such activities would not be a benefit to the employer and would probably also be outside of the scope of the driver’s duties for which he or she was hired.
There could be a different result if the driver asked his employer for permission to use the truck on his lunch break to help move furniture for a friend. Unless the employer refused to give permission for the activity, the employer could be held responsible under the principle of respondeat superior because of the consent given to what would otherwise be an activity not related to the truck driver’s duties.
Respondeat superior in the health care industry
Motor vehicle accidents are not the only situations in which an employer might be held responsible for the negligence of an employee. Hospitals can be liable for the negligent acts of doctors, nurses and other individuals employed by them. The same three elements must be proven to link the hospital with the conduct of the employee in order for an injured patient to recover damages.
Attending physicians charged with the responsibility of overseeing the activities of medical students, interns, residents, nurses and others performing services on behalf of patients could be held liable for the activities of those he supervises. Although an attending physician is an employee of the hospital at which he or she works and does not serve as an employer of the health care providers being supervised, there could be vicarious liability on the part of the attending physician.
A defense that is frequently raised in cases of vicarious liability focuses on the limited amount of supervision and control one person or entity exercises over another. A hospital, for instance, might claim that its supervision over the activities of doctors who have staff privileges is minimal at best. Its defense would involve showing that doctors with staff privileges are not employees and, therefore, not under the control of the hospital.
Independent contractors and vicarious liability
An independent contractor might be hired to perform work or services on behalf of a person or entity. Independent contractor law does not classify the person as an employee. In fact, the party hiring an independent contractor asserts little control over the activities of the contractor. Independent contractors work under their own direction and without supervision or control by the party engaging their services, so determining whether vicarious liability and respondeat superior principles apply can be difficult when personal injury claims arise.
As a general rule, independent contractors set their own schedules, provide their own equipment and tools, and work free from the control of the person who hired them. Under such circumstances, an accident caused by an independent contractor might not give rise to a vicarious liability claim by the injured party against the entity or individual that hired the contractor.
The facts and circumstances under which an independent contractor is hired and works would have to be carefully investigated and analyzed to determine the degree to which the contractor’s activities are controlled by another party. The fact that someone is identified as an independent contractor does not determine that person’s status. Vicarious liability will depend upon the degree of control and other factors that are more critical to the issue of liability than simply the name.
Get help with issues related to respondeat superior and vicarious liability
An attorney is an excellent source of guidance and legal advice when issues about vicarious liability and respondeat superior arise. Whether you are an injured party or someone against whom a claim for compensation has been made, knowing your rights and obligations under the laws of your state is critical to protecting your ability to file a claim or defend against one.