The Latin meaning of Respondeat Superior is “let the master answer”. Today, this legal doctrine has come to mean that an employer is responsible for the actions of their employees and agents performed in the course of their employment. However, as most business litigation lawyers will tell you, the devil is in the details. While this legal concept sounds relatively straight-forward, its application is quite fact specific and complex. Because of this, small business attorneys are frequently called upon for advice in situations where a company is having to answer for the missteps of their employees.
In general, courts enforce Respondeat Superior to further three primary purposes:
- To carry out public policy in protecting an employee from personal liability who was simply doing their job.
- To ensure the victim of an offense receives just compensation for the injuries they suffered.
- To ensure that the company – which benefits from the enterprise that caused the damages – is forced to absorb the expenses as a cost of doing business.
In order for an employer to be held liable under the doctrine of Respondeat Superior, it must be proven that:
- The employee was not acting with criminal intent. In some instances, an employee acts with the intent to cause damage to another person’s property, or to do physical harm to another. When this is the case, often an employer is not found liable. For instance, a deliveryman who loses his temper on the road and runs another driver off the road acts with criminal intent. That action would not typically fall within the scope of employment and, as long the employer could not reasonably be expected to have anticipated such conduct, the employer may not be held liable for the damages arising from such an incident.
- The employee was acting during work hours and within the scope of their employment. The scope of employment is very important, though not always easy to define. Each job is different and the discretion provided within a position can also vary, depending on the employer and the employee. If an employee has acted outside the scope of their employment, without the permission of the employer, and in a way that would not be expected by the employer, then the employer may escape legal liability.
The costs of a case attempting to impose liability using the doctrine of Respondeat Superior can be very high and threatening to the reputation and even the viability of a small business. It is important to have an experienced business litigation lawyer on hand to help prevent and defend against such losses. Call us today to learn how to better protect your small business against such liability.