Respondeat Superior Liability
One of the hazards of having employees use vehicles to perform work for you
is possible respondeat superior liability. Unlike some of the other liabilities
of having employees use your vehicles, you face respondeat superior
liability even if your employees get into accidents while driving their own
vehicles. In fact, you'll find that respondeat superior liability can
come into play after any unfortunate incident — not just auto
accidents — where an employee has harmed someone else or someone else's
What it means. Respondeat superior is a Latin term that lawyers
sometimes use. The term may be "translated" as:
If your employee,
- is at fault for an accident (or an incident); and
- was doing work for you at the time of the accident/incident (lawyers will
often refer to this as "acting within the scope of employment"); then
- you may be held liable for damages arising from the accident/incident.
The first reaction many people have after respondeat superior is
explained to them is to exclaim something like, "That doesn't sound fair!
Do you mean to tell me that if a painter runs a red light on the way to do a job
and gets into an accident that the painter's employer is liable? A boss can't
sit in the passenger's seat next to every employee and tell them how to drive!
What will those slithering lawyers think of next . . . "
Why it's the law. Actually, respondeat superior liability isn't
new. And the idea may make more sense to you if you think about this: suppose
the painter in our example showed up at your house and instead of painting the
house white, like you ordered, painted it in a nice florescent lime? Would you
be more willing to hold his employer liable now? Probably. Yet a boss can't
always afford to sit and watch an employee brush each stroke of paint onto a
building. Clearly, at some point the law has to draw a line. In most states,
this "line" is that employers will be held liable for wrongful acts
committed by their employees if those acts were committed within the scope of
What you can do. The key to reducing your liability under respondeat
superior is found in the words "within the scope of employment."
(Some courts prefer wording like "furthering a purpose of the
employer.") Thus, defending a respondeat superior claim typically
involves one of the following options:
- Establishing that an employee committed an intentional wrong, which
makes it unlikely that he or she was acting within the scope of employment.
Be careful about relying too much on this type of defense. Most people would
say slugging a customer is intentional, that it's wrong, and that it
probably couldn't serve any purpose for a business owner. But think about a
bouncer working in a bar and you realize that such issues aren't always
clear. And while running a red light is arguably an intentional wrong, if it
is done to get a few gallons of paint before the hardware store closes, it
unquestionably creates a liability issue.
- Establishing that the employer had a policy prohibiting employees from
doing whatever it was that the employee was doing that resulted in an
accident. This defense usually works best, but it has some obvious
limitations. You can't get away with making a policy against something after
it has happened. And a "policy" against "skidding out of
control when driving a company vehicle" would probably not fly with a
court if you tried using that as a defense either. However, it's possible
that a vehicle policy requiring employees to obey all traffic laws at all
times — even if it means arriving at a job late, or losing some business
— could be useful in the case where an employee runs a light.
Moreover, a policy restricting or prohibiting personal use of your vehicles
may be useful. Many accidents occur in such circumstances. After all,
employees who are off duty may be more likely to have been drinking. Or they
may try to do something with a vehicle that the vehicle was not intended to
do, such as moving a dinette set and chairs with a plumbing supply van so
that the rear doors are left wired shut with a chair ready to fall out of
You can review our discussion on making
and enforcing vehicle policies for additional information on this
- Depending on good vehicle
insurance to cover damages resulting from accidents and unfortunate
incidents. In many respondeat superior cases, this may be your most
viable option because accidents do happen while employees are performing
duties within the scope of their jobs. While you can't always avoid such
accidents, the right insurance coverage can go a long way to avoid a
devastating financial loss.