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Respondeat Superior

When Is An Employee On The Job?

[Latin, Let the master answer.] A common-law doctrine that makes an employer liable for the actions of an employee when the actions take place within the scope of employment.

The common-law doctrine of respondeat superior was established in seventeenth-century England to define the legal liability of an employer for the actions of an employee. The doctrine was adopted in the United States and has been a fixture of agency law. It provides a better chance for an injured party to actually recover damages, because under respondeat superior the employer is liable for the injuries caused by an employee who is working within the scope of his employment relationship.

The legal relationship between an employer and an employee is called agency. The employer is called the principal when engaging someone to act for him. The person who does the work for the employer is called the agent. The theory behind respondeat superior is that the principal controls the agent's behavior and must then assume some responsibility for the agent's actions.

An employee is an agent for her employer to the extent that the employee is authorized to act for the employer and is partially entrusted with the employer's business. The employer controls, or has a right to control, the time, place, and method of doing work. When the facts show that an employer-employee (principal-agent) relationship exists, the employer can be held responsible for the injuries caused by the employee in the course of employment.

In general, employee conduct that bears some relationship to the work will usually be considered within the scope of employment. The question whether an employee was acting within the scope of employment at the time of the event depends on the particular facts of the case. A court may consider the employee's job description or assigned duties, the time, place, and purpose of the employee's act, the extent to which the employee's actions conformed to what she was hired to do, and whether such an occurrence could reasonably have been expected.

An employee is not necessarily acting outside the scope of employment merely because she does something that she should not do. An employer cannot disclaim liability simply by showing that the employee had been directed not to do what she did. A forbidden act is within the scope of employment for purposes of respondeat superior if it is necessary to accomplish an assigned task or if it might reasonably be expected that an employee would perform it.

Relatively minor deviations from the acts necessary to do assigned work usually will not be outside the scope of employment. Personal acts such as visiting the bathroom, smoking, or getting a cup of coffee are ordinarily within the scope of employment, even though they do not directly entail work. When an employee substantially departs from the work routine by engaging in a frolic—an activity solely for the employee's benefit—the employee is not acting within the scope of her employment.

An employer is liable for harm done by the employee within the scope of employment, whether the act was accidental or reckless. The employer is even responsible for intentional wrongs if they are committed, at least in part, on the employer's behalf. For example, a bill collector who commits ASSAULT AND BATTERY to extract an overdue payment subjects the employer to legal liability.

Where the employer is someone who legally owes a duty of special care and protection, such as a common carrier (airplane, bus, passenger train), motel owner, or a hospital, the employer is usually liable to the customer or patient even if the employee acts for purely personal reasons. The theory underlying such liability is that employers should not hire dangerous people and expose the public to a risk while the employee is under the employer's supervision.

The employer may also be liable for her own actions, such as in hiring a diagnosed psychopath to be an armed guard. An employer, therefore, can be liable for her own carelessness and as a principal whose employee is an agent.

These rules do not allow the employee to evade responsibility for harm she has caused. Injured parties generally sue both the employee and employer, but because the employee usually is unable to afford to pay the amount of damages awarded in a lawsuit, the employer is the party who is more likely to pay.


Davant, Charles, IV. 2002. "Employer Liability for Employee Fraud: Apparent Authority or Respondeat Superior?" South Dakota Law Review 47 (fall): 554–582.

Kleinberger, Daniel S. 2002. "Respondeat Superior Run Amok." Bench & Bar of Minnesota 59 (November): 16.


Employment Law.

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