Vicarious Liability: Hold a Party Liable for Another’s Acts

Sarah Edwards

Contributor

Reviewed By Adam Ramirez, J.D.

Editor

Read in 4 mins

Much of American law is based on the idea that businesses and individuals are only responsible for their own actions. This encourages personal responsibility. In theory, if you bear the consequences of your actions, you will take extra care to avoid harming anyone or damaging anything.

However, situations arise when this doctrine produces unfair outcomes. A delivery worker earning minimum wage will not have the resources to pay for injuries they cause in a car accident. Moreover, since the worker caused the crash while working for their employer’s benefit, burdening them with an injury claim is also unfair to the worker.

Vicarious liability was created to remedy these issues. This legal doctrine imposes liability on a party for someone else’s actions. It often allows victims to pursue claims against parties with greater resources and allows the party who caused the injury to escape personal liability.

Vicarious Liability Law

Under the American legal system, injured victims usually cannot hold someone liable if they did not cause an injury. But this is exactly what happens with vicarious liability, meaning that you sue someone other than the person who caused your injury.

Determining this liability involves using the principle of vicarious negligence. Vicarious negligence only applies in narrow situations, including the following:

Employees

Employers bear legal liability for certain acts performed by their employees. Lawyers and judges also refer to this type of liability as “respondeat superior.”

This is one of the most common applications of vicarious liability. Employer liabilities only include employee actions performed in the course and scope of their employment, though. Thus, employers are not vicariously liable for employee actions that happen on their own time away from work.

Instead, the victim must show the employee acted on the employer’s behalf when the incident occurred. The doctrine does not require proof that the employer approved the employee’s actions. An employer bears liability for “rogue” employees when they perform job-related actions.

For example, suppose that a tree trimmer accidentally cuts the line when cutting through a branch. The branch falls on someone’s car, injuring the driver.

In this case, the tree trimmer probably acted negligently by cutting through the line. They also cut a branch while a car passed underneath it. But even if the worker violated company rules or safety regulations, accident victims may still be able to hold the employer liable and seek a personal injury settlement.

Agents

Certain relationships do not fall squarely into the legal definition of “employment.” The person in charge is called the principal, and the person acting on their behalf is called the agent. In these relationships, the agent acts for the principal’s benefit and under their direction and control.

Some examples of the principal-agent relationship include:

  • Master and servant
  • General contractor and subcontractor
  • Employer and independent contractor, in some cases

For example, many medical residents work as independent contractors of hospitals and clinics. However, since these residents act under the supervision of the facility, an injured patient may seek a medical malpractice payout from a hospital for acts performed by a resident.

Business Partners

Business partners may be held liable for each others’ actions. This doctrine only applies in a true partnership, though. States created limited partnerships, limited liability partnerships (LLPs) and limited liability companies (LLCs) so that victims could not pursue claims against co-owners uninvolved in the injury.

Children

Parents are usually not vicariously liable for the actions of their children. Still, victims can seek to hold parents liable in narrow circumstances. Specifically, if a child injures the victim because the parent failed to supervise the child, the parent may be held vicariously liable for the accident victim’s losses.

For example, suppose that the parent knows their underage child has stolen their keys and taken their car for joyrides in the past. If the parent fails to take any actions to prevent it from happening, they may be liable for a car crash caused by the child.

Worse yet, the parent’s auto insurer will likely deny coverage for any car accident settlement because the child was not covered by the policy.

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What Happens When a Party Is Vicariously Liable?

When a court holds a party vicariously liable to an accident victim, several avenues open. First, the accident victim has access to a party better positioned to pay for their losses. For instance, an employer often has liability insurance to cover injuries to third parties.

Second, the party that caused the injury often gets released from any liability. Thus, once a court finds an employer vicariously liable, the employee’s liability disappears.

If a truck driver negligently causes a semitruck accident, for example, you can often pursue a claim against the trucking company that employed them. Once the trucking company is on the hook, the truck driver is off the hook.

Learn More About Vicarious Liability From ConsumerShield

Without vicarious liability, you could win a case against someone who cannot pay a judgment. However, once you shift liability to another party, you may have many more options for seeking compensation.

ConsumerShield provides educational resources to those facing difficult legal problems. We can also help you find a lawyer to represent you. Contact us for a free case evaluation to learn more today.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Liability simply refers to a legal obligation. Liability usually arises from the liable party’s actions. The vicarious liability definition law professionals use shifts liability from the party who caused an injury to another person or business. For example, an employer is vicariously liable for an employee’s acts.

  • Vicarious liability allows an injured person to seek compensation from a party who did not cause their injuries. To apply this doctrine, you must prove a relationship between the two parties, where the person who caused the injury acts under the control and for the benefit of the liable party.

  • The most important result is that the victim can often recover compensation from a party with more resources. The liable party often has insurance or money to pay for the accident victim’s losses. For example, an employer often has much deeper pockets than its employees, which can benefit the victim.

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