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Vicarious Liability - Why Vicarious Liability Is Disfavored

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawVicarious Liability - Vicarious Liability And Strict Liability Distinguished, Why Vicarious Liability Is Disfavored, Vicarious Liability For Accomplices And Coconspirators - Conclusion

Why vicarious liability is disfavored

In many applications, vicarious criminal liability would violate either or both of two basic principles of the criminal law. According to the first principle, the actus reus requirement, a person cannot be guilty of a crime unless the person's guilty conduct includes a voluntary act or omission. One feature of the actus reus requirement is the protection of personal security it affords by forcing criminal statutes to provide a bright line that a person can choose not to cross and thereby avoid criminal liability. By holding a person liable for the conduct of another, vicarious liability undermines this control principle of the actus reus requirement, because a person cannot control the conduct of others in the same way that she can control her own. Just as importantly, vicarious liability may violate a second principle, that criminal liability must be based on personal fault. Both retributive and utilitarian justifications for criminal penalties demand that fault accompany the moral condemnation and harsher punishments associated with criminal conviction. By punishing the parent for theft if a child steals, for example, vicarious liability could violate this basic rule. Although neither of these principles is absolute, they do cabin (confine to a small space) the use of vicarious liability. As explained below, vicarious liability becomes more controversial as it does greater offense to these principles.

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