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Vicarious Liability for Torts of Employees

Normally, tort law requires the party causing the injury to compensate the injured party with money. The doctrine of vicarious liability, however, may hold a party other than the one actually causing the injury financially responsible for the harm. Several policy arguments exist for the imposition of vicarious liability on seemingly innocent parties.

  • The entity in the best position to prevent the harm should bear its responsibility;
  • An entity benefiting from an act should be required to pay when that act results in an injury; an
  • The entity most financially able to pay for injuries that are, at least, indirectly related to them should bear those losses.

Respondeat Superior

For these reasons, vicarious liability is often imposed on employers for the actions of their employees. In this context, vicarious liability is called respondeat superior. Under the respondeat superior doctrine, employers are responsible for injuries caused by their employees, provided that the injury occurs while the employee is acting within the scope of his or her employment.

In the Scope of Employment

Generally, an employee acts within the scope of his or her employment when he or she acts under the authority of the employer or for the benefit of the employer. If the employee is temporarily deviating from the employer’s work for a personal reason, the employee is still acting within the scope of his or her employment, so long as the diversion is fairly minor.

Examples:

  • In the scope of employment: An employee on a trip for his employer stops at a convenience store for a soda.
  • Not within the scope of employment: An employee making in-town sales calls for his employer drives to another city to meet a friend for lunch.

An employee is usually not acting within the scope of employment when he or she intentionally hurts another person. There are, however, exceptions to this general rule. If an employer has authorized the use of force or if the employee is furthering the business of the employer by committing the intentional harm, the employee will likely be found to have acted within the scope of his or her employment.

Examples:

  • Not acting within the scope of employment: A restaurant employee punches her former husband while he is eating in the establishment.
  • Acting within the scope of employment: A “bouncer” bruises a nightclub customer while forcibly removing him after a fight.