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Vicarious Liability in Personal Injury Lawsuits

Every day, innocent people are injured, through the fault and negligence of others, in tragic accidents. Their only remedy or avenue to being made whole is our system of civil justice. Within that system of justice, the only form of recompense available is financial compensation.

Doctrine of Respondeat Superior and Vicarious Liability

Unfortunately, in many instances, the person who caused the harm may lack the resources to compensate the victim fairly. To solve this dilemma, an ancient principle was applied to disputes since the times of Ancient Rome and was adapted to the Western legal system: Respondeat Superior – Let the master respond!

This concept is also known as Vicarious Liability. This important legal doctrine expands the scope of liability beyond simply the individual tortfeasor, or negligent person, to that person’s employer.

This same principle can be applied to make a parent responsible for the harmful actions of their children if they are acting as an agent of the parent. In both instances, an employer or parent can be held liable, despite their not being directly responsible for the harm.

What is Vicarious Liability?

The axiom was documented in our legal tradition for the first time in 1698 by Lord Holt: “For whoever employs another, is answerable for him, and undertakes for his care to all that make use of him.” Jones v. Hart, 2 Salk 441, 90 Eng. Rep. (K.B. 1698).

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that when someone is acting during their employment, their employer will be held liable for the harm they cause. In other words, the actions of the employee (or agent) are imputed to the employer, and responsibility for the harms caused by the employee attach to the employer as well.

Why is Vicarious Liability Important?

One might ask, is imputing liability to a person or an entity that did not directly harm anyone fair? Does this indirect liability comport with our notions of justice? After all, we might be inclined to hold that everyone is responsible only for their own actions – not the actions of others.

The answer becomes clear however upon considering the counterfactual – what would our society look like without the doctrine of respondeat superior, or vicarious liability? Without this principle in place, the risks inherent to the bevy of commercial activities that we encounter every day would be borne solely by the innocent victims, who would have no recourse to obtain compensation.

Vicarious Liability Example

Imagine the innocent person who is injured by a negligent truck driver, it is understood that of course the trucking company is in a better position to bear the cost and responsibility associated with such an accident. Therefore, as a social policy respondeat superior spreads the risk from the judgement proof truck driver to his employer – an entity with deeper pockets and the ability to be held accountable in a meaningful way for the harms caused by their employee.

What vicarious liability offers is a greater likelihood that the innocent victims of tortious (neglectful) conduct will have someone to hold financially responsible – thus the doctrine incentivizes employers to balance their profit interest against the costs of safety measures, to the benefit of us all.

The doctrine of vicarious liability does have reasonable limitations, to protect the employer from being held accountable for malicious or intentional torts of the employee. For example, criminal acts of a purely personal nature will not result in imputed liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior.  

How to Determine Vicarious Liability

First, it is important to understand how to establish and prove the relationship between the parties that the injured plaintiff seeks to hold liable. A critical element in establishing the existence of a “master-servant” relationship is the ability to control and direct the servant, and this relationship must have existed at the time the tortious conduct occurred. This is a factual question, a traditional employer relationship to an employee would satisfy this requirement.

The next step in determining whether vicarious liability applies is determining whether the conduct of the “servant” or employee, was undertaken within the scope of their employment, or whether they were deviating in some material way from the scope of their employment at the time the committed the negligent act or omission. Generally, the rule is that when an employee is acting within the scope of employment, that is to say they are furthering the employer’s business in some way, the employer will bear vicarious liability for the employee’s negligence. Vicarious liability will also apply if the employer is, or could be, exercising some degree of control over the employee – either directly or indirectly.

Vicarious Liability in New York State

In New York, whether an employee’s conduct was in the scope of their employment depends on the facts at hand. The mere fact that an employee’s conduct took place during their time of employment, for example, is not sufficient to establish conclusively that said acts were either within the scope of employment or in furtherance of the employer’s business.

Similarly, the fact that an employee may have been disregarding his employer’s instructions when the act took place does not conclusively exclude his conduct from falling within the scope of employment. Therefore, given the nature and complexity of these factual determinations – the question of whether the employer is vicariously liable because his employee acted in the scope of employment is typically decided by a jury rather than determined as a matter of law.

The relevant factors include the relationship between the time, location, and reason for the act; the history of the relationship between the employer and the employee as evidenced by their actual practice; whether the act in question is one that is typically done by such an employee; and whether the act involved a departure from the normal manner of performing the relevant duties; if there was such departure how extensive was it; and finally was the act something that the employer could have reasonably anticipated.

Once it is established that vicarious liability is applicable to a particular set of facts, the injured party will have more avenues for seeking compensation that can make them whole. As such, the principle of vicarious liability is critical to the functioning of our civil system of justice.

Attorneys Skilled in Vicarious Liability Negligence Cases Getting You Results

Experiencing an accident and navigating the process of initiating a claim and seeking justice can be an overwhelming and difficult process. In particular, it is important that an attorney assess the facts and circumstances to determine whether the harm was caused by someone else’s negligence, and whether there are additional vicariously liable defendants who can make you whole.

The expert attorneys at Block O’Toole & Murphy have years of experience obtaining compensation for clients who were injured in accidents caused by negligence. Noteworthy results include:

  • $110,174,972 jury verdict for a cyclist who was struck by a falling object while biking under a construction site
  • $32,756,156 jury verdict for a 60-year-old veteran who was struck by an intoxicated driver while he was trying to help others in an unrelated accident
  • $20,181,484 verdict for a man who was injured in a car accident due to icy roads, resulting in the loss of nearly all function in his arm
  • $15,000,000 settlement for the wife and children of a worker who was killed when crushed by a falling air chiller that was lifted with improper chains 
  • $14,000,000 settlement for a motorcyclist who required a below-the-knee amputation after he was struck by a truck making a left turn,
  • $13,500,000 settlement for a 24-year-old pedestrian who was hit by a company-owned vehicle, resulting in a brain injury 
  • $12,000,000 settlement for a tunnel worker who fell 40 feet down a ventilation shaft, resulting in severe injuries to his arms, legs, and pelvis

Contact Block O’Toole & Murphy to consult with an attorney. Call our New York office at 212-736-5300 or fill out our online contact form. We serve clients in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, Long Island, Upstate New York State and New Jersey.

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