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What is Respondeat Superior?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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Respondeat superior is a legal doctrine which states that employers have liability for actions undertaken by their employees in the course of doing their duties. This Latin phrase is often translated as "let the chief answer," in a reference to the idea that the employer can be made to answer for wrongs committed by employees. It is also sometimes referred to as the master-servant rule.

The doctrine of respondeat superior comes up most often in the context of torts, civil wrongs which people can take to court to sue for damages. A plaintiff can sue both an individual employee for a wrongful action and the employer under respondeat superior. The plaintiff may be able to win damages from both employer and employee.

In a case where someone is attempting to hold an employer liable for an action committed by an employee, it must be demonstrated that the employee was in fact executing duties for work. Employers are not held liable for the actions of their employees when they are off duty, for employees who are on leaves of absence, and for situations in which an employee is not operating within the scope of work duties. Thus, the employer of a tanker driver who gets into an accident while delivering fuel is liable, but if the tanker driver crashes a personal vehicle while on the way to the racetrack, the employer is not liable.

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Hospitals, brokerages, and law offices tend to be especially careful about respondeat superior. These employers can be exposed to considerable risk by their employees if those employees behave negligently or inflict intentional harms. Torts involving medical practice, unsound investment advice, and poor legal conduct may result in substantial awards when brought to court. As a result, such employers usually carry large liability insurance policies in order to cover such events, and they also train their employees extensively to encourage them to avoid situations which might result in liability.

Employers may contest the concept of respondeat superior if they believe that there are reasonable grounds to do so. If an employee acts beyond the scope of normal duties or is explicitly offering services on the side without the authorization of the employer, the employer may argue that it is not liable for any injuries experienced as a result. Such arguments are not always successful, as a court may determine that an employer should have been aware of a situation and that it is liable as a result of its own negligence.

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