Vicarious liability, also known as, “imputed liability,” is a legal concept that refers to the process of holding one person accountable for the actions of another person. Although the term applies to various types of legal relationships, it is most commonly associated with the employer-employee relationship that is found in employment law.

Basically, vicarious liability occurs when an employee commits a negligent act while “on the job” that is considered to be unlawful and causes harm. So long as the act is done “in the course of employment” and within the “scope of the employee’s job,” vicarious liability can apply. This means that their employer can legally be held responsible for any damages or injuries that result from the employee’s negligent actions. 

The purpose of vicarious liability is to allow an injured party to sue the employer instead, who is much more likely to have greater financial resources than the employee. 

Thus, despite the fact that it was the employee who caused the actual harm, the victim will be able to collect a larger damages award at the employer’s expense, due to the concept of vicarious liability. 

When are Employers Responsible for the Actions of Their Employees?

As previously mentioned, an employer may be held vicariously liable for the actions of an employee when an employee acts in a negligent manner that causes injury to another person while “on the job,” and was performing a task that was within their “scope of employment.”

For example:

  • Suppose an employee is employed by an ice rink where their job is to clean the ice every hour. One day, during their assigned work hours, they decide to show up drunk and operate the Zamboni (machine for cleaning or resurfacing ice, usually in an ice rink), which causes them to hit someone. Depending on a few other factors, the employer can most likely be held vicariously liable for actions of their employee that caused the person’s injuries.

Specifically, an employer can be held vicariously liable for an employee’s actions when:

  • An employer knowingly hires an unqualified employee that causes harm to result due to their lack of skills;
  • An employee was or became unfit (either mentally or physically) for a position, and a supervisor was aware of it, but allowed them to continue working anyway;
  • The employer failed to provide adequate supervision over an employee, which then led to an injury;
  • The employer has either insufficient or no policies or procedures in place, which then caused significant damages or injuries to occur; 
  • An employer is aware of harassment occurring in the workplace, but does nothing to prevent, stop, or correct the harmful behavior; and
  • The employer failed to properly train or direct employees regarding their assigned job duties, which caused injuries or damages to occur. 

These are just some of the primary examples of when an employer potentially can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees. This list is not comprehensive, however, so you may want to contact an employment attorney for more information involving a vicarious liability claim. 

What Defenses Do Employers Have to Protect Them Against Vicarious Liability Claims?

There are certain situations where an employer may not be able to be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees. 

For example, if an employee commits a harmful act that causes injury to another person, but it happens outside their scope of employment on what is known as a frolic or detour, then the employer cannot be held responsible for the employee’s conduct. (Briefly, a frolic is said to have happened when an employee makes a serious departure from their work responsibilities, and a detour occurs when an employee makes only a minor departure from their assigned work tasks). 

In general, an employer may be able to avoid vicarious liability when:

  • An employee’s conduct is not within the scope of their employment;
  • The employer has no knowledge of the conduct and did not approve such conduct;
  • The employer acted reasonably to prevent and correct any negative actions from happening; or
  • An employee unreasonably failed to use any preventive or corrective measures that were offered by the employer, in order to reduce or avoid the possibility of causing harm or an injury to occur.

Additionally, an employer is not usually vicariously liable for the actions of an independent contractor. Thus, another defense that an employer may use against a claim for vicarious liability, is that the employee is actually not an employee at all and is instead, an independent contractor. 

For more advice regarding defenses against a vicarious liability claim, you should consider speaking to an employment law attorney to receive further information on the matter.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Issues Involving Vicarious Liability?

If you have any questions or concerns regarding vicarious liability issues, or are involved with a matter concerning vicarious liability, you may want to contact an employment lawyer.

An experienced employment lawyer can you help you learn more about how to preserve your rights and whether any remedies exist if you have a claim.

Alternatively, if you are the party who is being sued by another party for vicarious liability, you should contact a personal injury lawyer

A personal injury lawyer will be able to determine whether there are any possible defenses that you may have, and provide guidance to help you understand the potential liabilities that you may be facing due to your employee’s actions.