In legal terms, the scope of employment refers to the range of activities that an employee is reasonably expected to participate in as part of their job duties.Within this range of activities, the employer could be held liable for their employee’s actions when a third party is injured or otherwise negatively affected by the employee’s conduct. The term is often used in personal injury cases.
When the scope of a person’s employment is questioned, it is generally to determine whether an employee’s actions during an accident were part of their job. If not, it would be said that the actions in question fell outside the scope of employment.
An example of this would be if an employee works in a warehouse, and they accidentally ran over a customer’s foot while operating heavy machinery. It would be relatively simple to claim that the employee’s actions were within their scope of employment when the accident occurred. However, if the employee was not trained to operate said heavy machinery, this might be considered outside the scope of their employment.
When Can an Employer Be Held Liable For Their Employee’s Actions?
The legal doctrine ”respondeat superior”, which is Latin for “let the superior answer,” is the legal theory that holds employers responsible for the actions of their employees.
An employer will generally be held liable for the actions of their employee if that employee was:
- Performing their job duties;
- Carrying out company business; or
- Otherwise acting on behalf of their employer when the incident occurred.
However, if the employee was not acting within the scope of employment, then the employer may not be liable.
This rule is intended to hold employers responsible for the cost of doing business, which can include costs associated with employee misconduct or carelessness. The employer will bear the responsibility if an injury caused by an employee is associated with the business.
The following are some examples regarding the different situations in which an employer may be held liable for the actions of an employee:
- If a restaurant promises delivery within thirty minutes, and the delivery driver hits a pedestrian while driving in order to beat the time deadline, the employer will most likely be held liable for the pedestrian’s injuries;
- If a sales company provides company cars to its sales staff for the purpose of 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 because the employee was not acting during business hours;
- If a business provides cell phones to all of their employees which only allows them to call into the office, and an employee hits a pedestrian while driving and using the cell phone to communicate with their assistant in the office, the employer could likely be held liable for the pedestrian’s injuries; and
- A company hires a professional to spray the office with power pesticides, and the next day several employees are sick from the fumes and are sent home. If one of those employees strikes a pedestrian driving home while having a dizzy spell, the employer is likely liable for the injuries that the pedestrian sustained.
When an employer is sued under the legal theory of respondeat superior, it is not common for the victim to prove that the employer should have known that the employee would cause that harm, if it was caused while acting within the scope of their employment.
A second legal theory under which an employer may be held liable for their employee’s actions would be vicarious liability. Vicarious liability refers to holding one person accountable for the actions of another. This theory could apply to various types of legal relationships; however, it is most commonly associated with the employer-employee relationship in employment law. Vicarious liability could apply when an employee commits a negligent act while on the job, when that act is considered to be unlawful and causes harm to another person.
So long as the act is committed during the course of employment, and within the scope of the employee’s job, vicarious liability could apply. This doctrine is intended to allow injured individuals to sue an employer, who will likely have greater financial resources, than the employee who caused the injury. Although the employee was the responsible party, the injured party may be able to collect a larger damages award at the expense of the employer.
To summarize, an example of this would be if a gallon of milk falls off of a shelf while a grocery employee is stocking that shelf. The milk hits and injures a customer. The employer could be held liable for the customer’s injuries. This same example would apply to negligence. If the employee spilled some milk in the aisle and failed to clean it up before the customer slipped and fell, the employer may be held liable in the resulting lawsuit. The employee was negligent within the scope of their employment.
What Does Outside the Scope of Employment Mean? What Are Some Examples of Being Outside the Scope of Employment?
Something that is outside the scope of employment would generally refer to a worker doing something that is not reasonably part of their duties. If an employee acted in some way that was not consistent with their job, and another person was injured as a result of those actions, the employer may not be held liable for those injuries. This also applies to the worker themselves.
There are numerous examples of activities that happen outside the scope of employment. One example of this would be if a delivery truck driver went outside of their delivery route to meet another person for coffee. The driver strikes a pedestrian while on the way to the coffee shop. As such, liability would be outside the scope of employment.
Illegal activities are obviously considered to be outside the scope of employment. An example of this would be if a bartender is selling more than alcohol during their shift. Those extracurricular activities would not be considered part of their regular job description, and their employer would not be held liable for resulting injury. Theft, assault, and battery would also fall under the same umbrella of an employer not being responsible.
Because independent contractors are not considered to be “legal employees,” their actions may also be considered outside the scope of employment. An employment attorney would be best suited for explaining this if you have any questions related to independent contractors and scope of employment.
How Is Employer Liability Determined?
Respondeat Superior and vicarious liability have already been discussed as legal theories which may be used to determine employer liability. Some other examples include:
Do I Need an Attorney For Issues Related to Scope of Employment?
If you have any questions regarding liability and scope of employment, you should consult with an experienced and local employment lawyer. Scope of employment, liability, and restitution are all complex matters that require a good working knowledge of employment law.
Additionally, state laws may vary in terms of employer liability, especially when independent contractors are involved. Working with an attorney will ensure you receive the most relevant legal advice to your state. Finally, an experienced attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed, while also answering any questions you may have.