Holding Employers Accountable for their Employees' Actions
Holding Employers Accountable for their Employees' Actions: Respondeat Superior
Imagine you are driving down the road, and you are suddenly rear ended by a large van. Your car is a wreck, and you suffered serious whiplash and a broken nose as a result of the collision and the air bag in your vehicle. The accident clearly was not your fault. Who is responsible for the damage to your car, your medical bills, and your pain and suffering? The obvious answer would be that the driver of the van is responsible. If that van was painted with the logo of a national corporation, would that make any difference? There is a good chance that it would.
Under theories of vicarious liability, such as "respondeat superior," employers have a special relationship with their employees. Employers benefit from the work that their employees engage in, but the other side of the coin states that the employer will also be held responsible when the employee causes damage or harm. If the damage occurred during the course of the employee's work related duties, then the employer will often be found responsible for compensating the injured party.
In the example we started with, if the van was a vehicle that belonged to a carpet cleaning company, and the driver was driving to a location where he was meant to clean the carpet when the accident occurred, then there is a good chance that the damage done and injuries caused would likely be attributed to the employer. While the employer might see this as decidedly unfair, the law aims to provide protection to the innocent driver who was injured as a result of the other driver's negligence. Often the best way to provide compensation to the injured person is to go after the assets of the employer, which are likely to be far greater than those of the employee who caused the accident.
There are exceptions of course. If an employee who was out in the course of his job decided to take the afternoon off to meet his girlfriend at the mall, and the accident occurred while he was on his way to meet her, the employer would argue that the company does not bear responsibility for the employee's actions. This is because when employees "detour" from their job related activities, the employer will no longer be considered responsible for what the employee is doing.
Special circumstances also arise when the employee injures another individual who is also an employee. In the case of the van that rear ends someone, this would include the employee who is in the passenger seat of the van that caused the accident. If the passenger in the van suffered an injury in the accident, he or she would not have the same ability to sue the employer. This is because employers are protected from being sued by their employees. Instead of a lawsuit, the injured employee would be able to file for workers' compensation.
There are additional ways in which employees might be held liable for employee actions even when the employees are intentionally committing wrongs, such as crimes or harassing other employees, or customers, or even committing crimes. Whether liability exists in these cases will depend on the circumstances and issues including whether the employer was negligent when they hired the employee, or whether they knew about the behavior and failed to prevent it from continuing to occur.
If you were injured in an accident and do not know who is responsible for the harm done to you, you should contact an attorney to have the specific circumstances of your claim evaluated.
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