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What Is Vicarious Liability In Tort Law?
Definition & Examples

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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark

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As a law firm with many years of experience in the field of personal injury, we often hear the term "vicarious liability" used by clients looking to be compensated for injuries they have suffered. This article will explain vicarious liability and how it might affect your personal injury claim.

Summary of the Key Findings

  • Vicarious liability occurs when someone is considered legally responsible for someone else's actions.
  • Vicarious liability most often happens when an employer is held responsible for what an employee does.
  • To win a vicarious liability case, you usually have to show that the principal should have been able to foresee the agent's actions.

What is Vicarious Liability?

A person thinking while holding paperworkVicarious liability is a complex legal doctrine that holds one person liable for the actions of another.

In the context of tort law, it means that an employer can be held vicariously liable for wrongful acts committed by their employees, even if the employer was not directly involved in or aware of the wrongful act.

This doctrine is based on the theory that an employer should be held responsible for the acts of their employees because they have a duty to ensure that their employees are appropriately trained and supervised. 

An employer should not be able to avoid liability for the unlawful actions committed by employees on behalf of the company. The employee’s work belongs to the company, and so does the liability for their negligence.

Additionally, this law can also apply to situations where an owner allows another person to use their property (such as a car or a gun), and that person then uses that property to commit a tortious act. In these cases, laws are written so the owner can be held liable for the acts of the person who used it.

“Corrective justice is the idea that liability rectifies the injustice inflicted by one person on another. Vicarious liability breaks this causal link.” - Vicarious Liability in Tort, A Comparative Perspective, Cambridge University Press

Elements of Liability

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To better understand vicarious liability, you should know what you need to prove a liability case.

All law students are taught that a liability tort is a civil wrong committed by one person that results in harm to another. In order for a civil plaintiff to recover damages in a liability tort case, they must prove three main elements: duty, breach of duty, and causation [1].

  • The first element requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant owed them a duty of care. This means that the defendant had an obligation to take reasonable measures to prevent foreseeable harm from coming to the plaintiff.
  • The second factor occurs when the defendant fails to meet the standard of care required by the first element. The plaintiff must then conclusively demonstrate that the defendant's actions or inaction were a breach of the duty.
  • The third and final element requires the plaintiff to prove that their injuries would not have occurred except for the defendant's breach of duty. This is the link between the breach of duty and the resulting injuries - the defendant's action or lack of action was the direct cause of the plaintiff's injuries.

In other words, the plaintiff must show that the defendant's actions were the direct cause of their injuries and that their injuries would not have occurred if there had not been a breach in the duty of care.

Torts committed with these three elements will likely result in a win for the plaintiff. Of course, in torts of vicarious liability, the plaintiff must prove that the employer is liable and the party at fault. They must also prove that the employee's actions were within the scope of employment.

Respondeat Superior

A man explaining something to another personSeveral relationships can result in vicariously liability. They all originally arose from the common law concept of respondeat superior, or "let the master answer," and Qui facit per alium facit per se, which means, "He who acts through another does the act himself [2]." This is a form of strict liability and includes intentional torts.

For there to be a vicarious liability, there needs to be a principal and an agent. A principal is someone who approves or oversees another individual to operate in their place. The individual who is permitted to act or is monitored by the principal is known as an agent.

Each relationship of vicarious liability includes a principal and an agent. In employment law, the principal is the employer, and the agent is an employee.

However, other principal/agent relationships can be:

  • Parent and child
  • Business partners
  • Employer and an independent contractor (in certain situations)

In determining the extent to which the relationship scope exists, the court could apply the Control test, Organisation test, and Sufficient relationship test.

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What are the Examples of Vicarious Liability?

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Some examples of this vicarious liability include:

  • If an employee’s conduct injures a customer - tort law says the employer may be held liable. They can also be liable if an independent contractor is acting as the employer’s agent.
  • If a child is driving on behalf of the parents and has an accident - the parents may be liable for the wrongful act.
  • If a business partner commits a crime, the other partner may also be held vicariously liable.

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See the other personal injury and accidents lawsuits our lawyers have taken on.


Why does vicarious liability exist?

Vicarious liability exists to hold people or entities liable for the actions of another person over whom they have control. This helps ensure that people are careful about who they allow to act on their behalf and motivates employers to train their employees properly. 

This is done to cover personal injury cases where employment relationships exist, but sometimes independent contractors can be part of a principal-agent relationship. In this case, the employer can be held liable via respondeat superior for the contractor’s negligent acts.

A famous example of this is when the court decided that the Exxon Shipping Company should be held liable for the Exxon Valdez oil spill even though the oil tanker was run by contractors. Under tort law, negligence was imputed to Exxon though there was no employment relationship.

Related Article: Intentional Tort vs Negligence

When can an employer be held accountable for the actions of an employee?

An employer can be held accountable for the actions of an employee when the employee is acting within the bounds of their employment. This means that the employer should have known that the employee would take the action in question and failed to prevent it. Employers often are not held liable for the actions of independent contractors, but they can be under certain circumstances. 

Vicarious Liability In Tort Law

This sort of liability is a very complex issue in tort law. It has to balance a victim's right to be compensated without principals being held liable for acts that they would have no reason to foresee.

Speak with an experienced attorney if you believe you may have a vicarious liability case. They can help determine if you have a valid claim and what your best course of action may be.

If you are interested in learning how we can help if you have been the victim of negligence, click here.