There are some instances in which an employer may be liable for the acts of an employee. The legal doctrine ”respondeat superior”, which is Latin for “let the superior answer,” is a theory that holds employers responsible for the actions of their employees. 

An employer will generally be held liable for the actions of an employee if that employee was performing their job duties, carrying out company business, or otherwise acting on behalf of their employer when an incident took place. However, if the employee was not acting in the scope of their job duties, the employer may not be liable.

The purpose of this rule is to hold employers responsible for the cost of doing business, which includes the cost of employee misconduct or carelessness. If an injury caused by an employee is a rise of the business, the employer will be required to bear the responsibility.

The following examples provide illustrations regarding the different situations in which an employer may be liable:

  • If a restaurant promises delivery within 30 minutes or the next order is free and the delivery driver hits a pedestrian while driving to beat the time deadline, the employer will likely be liable for the pedestrian’s injuries;
  • If a sales company provides company cars to the sales staff for sales calls and an employee uses the vehicle to run personal errands after work and hits a pedestrian, the employer would likely not be held liable;
  • If a business issues cell phones to all of their employees which allows them to call into the office and an employee hits a pedestrian while driving and using the cell phone to talk to their assistant in the office, the employer would likely be liable for the pedestrian’s injuries;
  • If a company hires a fumigator to spray the office with power pesticides and the next day several employees fall ill from the fumes and are sent home, if one of those employees hits a pedestrian on the way home while having a dizzy spell, the employer is likely liable.

If an employer is sued under the legal theory of respondeat superior, the victim of their employee will not typically have to show that the employer should have known the employee would cause harm if the employee caused the injury while acting within the scope of their employment.

Another legal theory under which an employer may be held liable for their employee’s actions is vicarious liability, or imputed liability. This is a legal concept that refers to holding one individual accountable for the actions of another. 

This theory may apply to various types of legal relationships but it is most commonly associated with the employer-employee relationship in employment law. Vicarious liability applies when an employee commits a negligent act while on the job that is considered to be unlawful and causes harm to another individual.

As long as the act is committed during the course of employment and within the scope of the employee’s job, vicarious liability may apply. In other words, the employer may be held liable for any damages or injuries that result from an employee’s negligent actions.

The purpose of this doctrine is to permit injured individuals to sue an employer, which is much more likely to have greater financial resources than the employee who caused the injury. Despite the fact that the employee was the one who caused the harm, the injured party may be able to collect a larger damages award at the expense of the employer.

Can an Employer Be Liable Simply for Hiring the Employee?

In some cases, an employer may be held liable simply for hiring an employee. There are two legal theories under which an employer may be held liable: negligent hiring and negligent retention. 

If an employer fails to take reasonable care when hiring employees, they have committed negligent hiring. If the employer continues to employ the employee after learning they pose a potential danger, the employer has committed negligent retention.

If it was obvious an employee was reasonably capable of committing an act, even if that act was not within the scope of employment, an employer may be held liable if the employee commits the act and injures another individual. In other words, an employer may be held liable for any of an employee’s acts that were reasonably predictable. 

For example, if an employer hires an employee without completing a background check which would have revealed the employee had a criminal record involving armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. Suppose this mentioned employee is a delivery driver who shoots and robs a customer and it was obvious from the circumstances of their previous crimes that they would likely commit the same offenses again. In this case, the employer may be held liable for the costs of any injuries sustained by a victim as a result of the employee’s act.

It is important to note that the previously mentioned doctrines can apply even if an employee is outside the scope of their employment. It is often used to hold an employer responsible for violent acts committed by employees while in the workplace.

How are Employer Liability Disputes Resolved?

Employer liability disputes may be resolved in several different ways. In these cases, an injured individual is seeking damages from an employer, which typically has deeper pockets, or more money available, than the employee to compensate the injured party.

In many cases, the plaintiff, or injured party, and the company can reach a settlement agreement. This can be accomplished through their attorneys or through alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods, such as mediation and arbitration.

If these methods fail, the plaintiff may be required to file a lawsuit in civil court under the doctrines discussed above. The court will then determine if the employer is liable for their employee’s actions. If so, the plaintiff will be awarded damages.

What Types of Employer Liability Issues are Related to COVID-19?

COVID-19 has presented employers with a new employer liability issue. While the previously discussed doctrines still apply and have not changed during this time, there may be new concerns regarding employees contracting the coronavirus.

In these times, employers are responsible for taking precautions to protect their employees, such as schedule changes and allowing remote work, when possible. OSHA has provided employers with reasonable steps they should take to prevent exposure to the virus at work. These may include:

  • Installing physical barriers;
  • Prohibiting access to gathering areas and staggering shifts to lower the number of employees present;
  • Providing or requiring personal protective equipment; and
  • Requiring safety and health actions such as requiring employees to wear face coverings and wash their hands frequently.

It is important to note that states are handling COVID-19 employer lawsuits in different ways. Some states have enacted laws that protect employers from civil lawsuits related to the virus. Most of these laws require that the employer show they attempted in good faith to follow the public health guidance provided regarding the virus.

What if There is an Employer Liability Dispute Involving COVID-19 Matters?

Currently, the laws are changing on a daily basis. In many cases, so long as an employer can demonstrate they took the suggested precautions regarding the virus, they will not be held liable for related injuries. It is important to seek the advice of an attorney for any employer liability disputes regarding COVID-19.

Should I Consult an Attorney?

Yes, it is extremely important to have the assistance of an experienced employment contract lawyer if you are facing any vicarious liability or respondeat superior issues with an employee at your business. Your lawyer can review your case, advise you of your rights, and represent you during any court proceedings.

If you have been injured by the employee of a business, it is essential to have the assistance of an experienced personal injury lawyer. Your lawyer will review your case, determine if the employer may be liable for your injuries, and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary.