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Sued For Something You Didn’t Do? What is Vicarious Liability?

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Imagine you’re at home on a lazy Sunday, hanging out with a friend, when you get a craving for pizza.  So you give your friend $20 and ask him to run and get a pizza for you and he can keep the change.  Your friend on the way to buy the pizza, accidentally rear-ends someone.  But a month later YOU are served with a lawsuit for the damages.  How is that possible?  Welcome to the legal world of Vicarious Liability.

Vicarious liability, also sometimes called by stuffy old Judges “the doctrine of respondeat superior”  is the idea that an employer is responsible for the acts of its employees while they are in the “course and scope” of their employment.  I call it “BIcarious liability” (because I think I’m witty) because it essentially makes two parties liable for the actions of one.

Why would we hold an employer responsible for its employees?  There are a couple reasons the courts have raised in the past but the main reason is that those people who have been injured by someone else should have a means of recovery and USUALLY, the employer or the company is the party you are more likely to recover from.  Like most things in life – it comes down to money.

As a recent example, nowadays we have a lot of people using ridesharing services – Uber and Lyft.  When you drive for a ridesharing service you are only required to have the State minimum insurance.  If an Uber driver hits you and you are seriously injured, you can make a claim against the driver but, also, due to the magic of vicarious liability, you can ALSO make a claim against Uber Incorporated for your damages and Uber is worth… a lot of money.  So, to protect itself, Uber purchases a million – yes, a million dollars of liability insurance while a driver has the Uber app on.

So now that you know that there’s a thing called vicarious liability, you might be thinking – well, that’s not fair, what if a Lyft driver gets a bad case of road-rage one day and decides to ram his car into someone.  Why should Lyft be liable for that?  And you, my insightful viewer, are absolutely correct – there generally is no vicarious liability for intentional or criminal acts of employees.

But, but what about all the lawsuits against the Catholic Church (for example) stemming from abuse by Priests?  How can you sue the Church for a crime committed by an individual – the priest.  And again you are very smart and you have put your finger on something the Courts have been grappling with for the last couple of decades.  Even in these cases the Courts have been reluctant to extend the doctrine to criminal acts.  And that is why in cases of sexual abuse you will see allegations that the Church or the employer knew of the abuse and turned a blind eye to it and therefore there is a separate action against the employer for its own negligence – and there’s no need to even argue vicarious liability.

And finally, coming back to our initial situation where you had given your friend $20 to go to the store for you?  Yes, the defense to your lawsuit you received is that your friend was not actually your employee but an independent contractor – which does negate vicarious liability and would probably be a good defense to the lawsuit.

And there you have it – the doctrine of Respondeat Superior.  If an Uber or Lyft driver hits you – call me!

Jeremy Hogan
Jeremy Hogan
Attorney Jeremy Hogan is a partner at Hogan & Hogan.