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What is Respondeat Superior?
Characteristics & Recoverable Damages

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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark
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If you happen to be injured by an employee who was working at the time, you may be able to sue their employer. The law says that the employer is responsible for the employee’s wrong actions when they are working.

I have worked on many respondeat superior cases and have seen firsthand how this legal doctrine can benefit injured victims. 

So let me tell you a little more about how respondeat superior works and how it might help you if an employee of a company has harmed you.

Summary of the Key Findings

  • When respondeat superior is utilized, a plaintiff generally looks to hold both the employer and the employee liable.
  • For the respondeat superior to apply, the employee’s act must have been within the scope of employment when they committed the tortious act.
  • In some cases, the plaintiff may also be able to recover attorney’s fees and costs.

What Is the Definition of “Respondeat Superior”?

A business person holding and looking at a laptop while standing upRespondeat superior sometimes referred to as the “doctrine of vicarious liability,” is a legal principle used in tort law. In Latin, it means “let the master answer.” 

This law makes the employer or master liable for the illegal behavior of an employee or agent if such acts occur within the scope of employment or agency [1]. The doctrine is used in the USA and is a significant part of agency law. 

The idea behind respondeat superior is that the boss controls the agent’s behavior and, therefore, must accept some responsibility for the agent’s actions.

Examples of Respondeat Superior

The most common examples of respondeat superior that I have come across over the years are found in the context of auto accidents. Suppose an employee is driving a company car for work-related purposes and gets into an accident. 

However, keep in mind that independent contractors are not employees under the respondeat superior doctrine. 

So, if an independent contractor is injured while working on a project for your company, the employer’s business would not be held liable for the independent contractor under this legal principle.

Characteristics of Respondeat Superior

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The respondeat superior claim must meet the following five characteristics:

1. There Must Be an Employer-Employee Relationship

The employment relationship is the first and most important element of respondeat superior. Respondeat superior applies when there is an employer-employee relationship between the wrongdoer and the employer’s business. 

2. The Employee Must Be Acting Within the Scope of Employment

The second element required for the respondeat superior to apply is that the employee must have been performing assigned duties within their job description and overtime of his or her employment when they committed the tortious act. 

As a general rule, if the employee involved was not on the clock, they are not subject to legal liability.

3. The Employee Must Be Acting With the Intent to Benefit Their Employer

The third element of respondeat superior is that the employee must have been acting with the intent to benefit their employer when they committed the tortious act. 

4. The Tort Must Have Been Reasonably Foreseeable

The fourth element of respondeat superior is that the tort must have been reasonably foreseeable. This means that it must have been reasonably foreseeable that the employee’s wrongful acts could lead to the type of injuries caused by that accident.

5. The Employer Must Be Negligent in Hiring or Supervising the Employee

The fifth and final element of respondeat superior is that the employer must be negligent in hiring or supervising the employee. 

How Can Respondeat Superior Apply?

A person holding a large law book

Respondeat superior can apply in a legal case in two ways, direct liability and vicarious liability claims.

  1. Direct Liability Claim: The most common way is for the plaintiff to sue the employer directly. 
  2. Vicarious Liability Claim: Another way that the respondeat superior can apply is for the plaintiff to sue the employee directly because they are held vicariously liable.

When Is an Employer Liable?

There are a few different situations when an employer is liable under respondeat superior liability for the actions of their employees.

  • When the employee is acting within the scope of their employment. 
  • If the employer was guilty of negligent hiring or supervising the employee.
  • If the tortious act was reasonably foreseeable due to the employee’s negligence. 

An employee is an employer’s agent to the extent that he or she has the apparent authority to act on behalf of the company and is partly entrusted with its affairs. The employer controls and has a right to regulate when and where employees work and how the employee acts.

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What Is the Deep Pocket Approach?

A lawyer using a laptop

The deep pocket approach is a legal theory that allows a plaintiff to sue an employer for the actions of their employees, even if the employer was not directly responsible for the torts committed. 

The deep pocket approach allows plaintiffs to recover damages from employers of the business enterprise even if the employer was not directly responsible for the tortious act.

This can be helpful in cases where the employee does not have the financial resources to pay damages or where the tortious act was particularly egregious.

“Personal injury claimants will usually want to sue a corporate entity rather than an individual because businesses typically carry much greater amounts of insurance coverage.”
David Goguen, Member of State Bar of California


What Type of Damages Can Be Recovered?

A business person writing down on a notebookIf an employer is found liable for their employee’s actions, the plaintiff can recover various damages. 

These can include compensatory damages, designed to compensate the plaintiff for their losses, and punitive damages, designed to punish the employer for their negligence.

However, first, the court may look at the employee’s job description and duties to see if their actions were part of their normal job or if they were doing something for their employer that they were supposed to do. The court will also look at when, where, and why the incident happened.


What is the doctrine of respondeat superior, and what is it based on?

The doctrine of respondeat superior is a legal doctrine used in cases where the employee was acting within the scope of their employment. It is based on the legal principle that an employer can be held liable for the actions of their employees. 

Can an employer be held liable for the actions of their employees if they did not directly cause harm?

Yes, an employer can be held liable for the actions of their employees even if they did not directly cause harm. 

Do You Think You Have A Respondeat Superior Case?

Respondeat superior is a common law doctrine that holds employers responsible for the actions of their employees. This means that if an employee commits a tortious act while acting within the scope of their employment, the employer can be held liable for any damages that result.

If you believe that you have been the victim of a tortious act, you may be able to recover damages from the employer through a personal injury case. Contact Schmidt & Clark, LLP and speak to an experienced personal injury attorney in a free consultation session to learn more about your legal rights and options.



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