respondeat superior

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Respondeat Superior

[Latin, Let the master answer.] A common-law doctrine that makes an employer liable for the actions of an employee when the actions take place within the scope of employment.

The common-law doctrine of respondeat superior was established in seventeenth-century England to define the legal liability of an employer for the actions of an employee. The doctrine was adopted in the United States and has been a fixture of agency law. It provides a better chance for an injured party to actually recover damages, because under respondeat superior the employer is liable for the injuries caused by an employee who is working within the scope of his employment relationship.The legal relationship between an employer and an employee is called agency. The employer is called the principal when engaging someone to act for him. The person who does the work for the employer is called the agent. The theory behind respondeat superior is that the principal controls the agent's behavior and must then assume some responsibility for the agent's actions.

An employee is an agent for her employer to the extent that the employee is authorized to act for the employer and is partially entrusted with the employer's business. The employer controls, or has a right to control, the time, place, and method of doing work. When the facts show that an employer-employee (principal-agent) relationship exists, the employer can be held responsible for the injuries caused by the employee in the course of employment.

In general, employee conduct that bears some relationship to the work will usually be considered within the scope of employment. The question whether an employee was acting within the scope of employment at the time of the event depends on the particular facts of the case. A court may consider the employee's job description or assigned duties, the time, place, and purpose of the employee's act, the extent to which the employee's actions conformed to what she was hired to do, and whether such an occurrence could reasonably have been expected.

When Is an Employee on the Job?

The crucial question in a respondeat superior claim is whether the employee was acting within the scope of employment: Was the employee involved in some activity related to the job? In 1991 the Supreme Court of Virginia decided a case, Sayles v. Piccadilly Cafeterias, Inc.,242 Va. 328, 410 S.E.2d 632, that illustrates how difficult answering this question can sometimes be.

The case began with a Christmas Eve accident in 1987. Charles Sayles was a passenger in an automobile hit by another car, driven by Stephen Belcastro. Both men were leaving the Christmas party held on the premises of their company, Piccadilly Cafeterias, Inc, of Richmond, Virginia. Belcastro had become intoxicated at the party and, later, explained that he was "fooling around" when he drove his car into the left-hand lane of the road, lost control, and struck the other car, injuring Sayles.

Because Belcastro was intoxicated as a result of having drinks provided by their employer at a company-sponsored event, Sayles sued Piccadilly under the doctrine of respondeat superior. The jury returned a verdict in Sayles's favor and awarded him damages of $11.5 million. The trial court set aside the judgment, however, ruling that Belcastro had been acting outside the scope of his employment when the accident occurred.

On appeal, Sayles cited a Virginia appellate case, Kim v. Sportswear, 10 Va. App. 460, 393 S.E.2d (1990), from the previous year. Kimwas a Workers' Compensation case whose facts were similar: it involved an employee fatally injured while attending a Korean New Year's party sponsored and hosted by the employer. The appellate court had allowed recovery of damages against the employer.

The Supreme Court of Virginia declined to follow Kim, however. The court noted first that Kim was a workers' compensation case, governed by a statute that is to be "liberally construed in favor of the claimant." The court also made several factual distinctions: employees were expected to attend the party in the Kim case, whereas the party in Sayles did not carry such expectations. Further, the injury in Kimtook place on the employer's premises, in contrast to Sayles, where the collision did not occur until five minutes after the drivers had left the party. Based on these facts, the Saylescourt held that Belcastro was not engaged in the business of serving his employer at the time of the accident and therefore the employer could not be held liable.

An employee is not necessarily acting outside the scope of employment merely because she does something that she should not do. An employer cannot disclaim liability simply by showing that the employee had been directed not to do what she did. A forbidden act is within the scope of employment for purposes of respondeat superior if it is necessary to accomplish an assigned task or if it might reasonably be expected that an employee would perform it.

Relatively minor deviations from the acts necessary to do assigned work usually will not be outside the scope of employment. Personal acts such as visiting the bathroom, smoking, or getting a cup of coffee are ordinarily within the scope of employment, even though they do not directly entail work. When an employee substantially departs from the work routine by engaging in a frolic—an activity solely for the employee's benefit—the employee is not acting within the scope of her employment.

An employer is liable for harm done by the employee within the scope of employment, whether the act was accidental or reckless. The employer is even responsible for intentional wrongs if they are committed, at least in part, on the employer's behalf. For example, a bill collector who commits Assault and Battery to extract an overdue payment subjects the employer to legal liability.

Where the employer is someone who legally owes a duty of special care and protection, such as a common carrier (airplane, bus, passenger train), motel owner, or a hospital, the employer is usually liable to the customer or patient even if the employee acts for purely personal reasons. The theory underlying such liability is that employers should not hire dangerous people and expose the public to a risk while the employee is under the employer's supervision.

The employer may also be liable for her own actions, such as in hiring a diagnosed psychopath to be an armed guard. An employer, therefore, can be liable for her own carelessness and as a principal whose employee is an agent.

These rules do not allow the employee to evade responsibility for harm she has caused. Injured parties generally sue both the employee and employer, but because the employee usually is unable to afford to pay the amount of damages awarded in a lawsuit, the employer is the party who is more likely to pay.

Further readings

Davant, Charles, IV. 2002. "Employer Liability for Employee Fraud: Apparent Authority or Respondeat Superior?" South Dakota Law Review 47 (fall): 554–582.

Kleinberger, Daniel S. 2002. "Respondeat Superior Run Amok." Bench & Bar of Minnesota 59 (November): 16.


Employment Law.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

respondeat superior

(rehs-pond-dee-at superior) n. Latin for "let the master answer," a key doctrine in the law of agency, which provides that a principal (employer) is responsible for the actions of his/her/its agent (employee) in the "course of employment." Thus, an agent who signs an agreement to purchase goods for his employer in the name of the employer can create a binding contract between the seller and the employer. Another example: if a delivery truck driver negligently hits a child in the street, the company for which the driver works will be liable for the injuries. (See: agency, principal, agent, negligence)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

respondeat superior

Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

Respondeat superior. Let the principal answer. 4 Co. Inst. 114; 2 Bouv. Inst. n. 1337; 4 Bouv. Inst. n. 3586.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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