Vicarious Liability

Vicarious Liability

The term “vicarious liability” refers to the situation where one party is liable for the wrongful acts of another.

The vicariously liable party typically does not have to share blame for the accident or incident that generates liability.

Vicarious liability is fairly common in product liability law, employee misconduct claims, DUI-based claims, and other types of personal injury claims

Table of Contents

Employer/Employee Liability

Employer/Employee Liability

Under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is liable for the misconduct of their employee, as long as the employee was acting within the scope of their employment.

In many cases, “acting within the scope of employment” means that the employee was on duty at the time of the accident and that the employee’s act was foreseeable.

An employer might evade liability, however, if the employee was on a “frolic” at the time of the accident even though they were on duty.

An employee who leaves the worksite and injures someone in a drunken bar fight might not trigger employer liability, for example, even if the employee was “on the clock” at the time of the fight.

Product Liability

In a product liability lawsuit, you can sue any party in the product’s chain of distribution. This includes the manufacturer, the wholesaler, and the retailer. It does not include the customer or anyone who does not qualify as a merchant.

Suppose, for example, that a defectively manufactured auto part causes an injury accident, Suppose further that the manufacturer of the defective auto part went out of business years ago. The injured party can still sue the wholesaler and the retailer.

Dram Shop Liability

Unlike most states, California does not hold alcohol vendors or social hosts liable for providing alcohol to an intoxicated patron who later causes an accident. 

There are two exceptions, however:

  • An alcohol vendor can bear liability for damages caused by serving alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor (under 21).
  • A social host can bear liability for damages caused by serving alcohol to someone who the host knows, or should know, is under 21. The minor does not have to be obviously intoxicated, and the host can bear liability for injuries to the minor and anyone else the minor injured.  

One of the purposes of dram shop laws is to help injured victims find defendants who can pay a large damages claim.

Parent/Child Liability

A parent can bear liability for the acts of their minor child (under 18) under the following circumstances:

  • The child acted wilfully;
  • The parent knew the child was dangerous yet failed to take action to prevent someone from suffering an injury; or
  • The child injured someone with a firearm.

Once a child becomes legally emancipated (by getting married, joining the army, etc.), the parent is no longer liable for their acts, even if they have not turned 18 yet.

Co-Conspirator Liability

Criminal law includes prohibitions against criminal conspiracies that punish co-conspirators for criminal acts taken by other people in furtherance of a common conspiracy.

Although this principle normally applies in criminal law, it can apply to civil lawsuits arising from criminal acts committed in furtherance of a conspiracy.

Principal/Agent Liability

A principal’s liability to an agent extends to the following cases.

An Agent Performing a Non-Delegable Duty for the Principal

A non-delegable duty is a duty that, for public policy reasons, the law does not allow a principal to delegate to an agent. The duty to maintain a safe working environment, for example, is non-delegable.

If an agent breaches a non-delegable duty, a court can hold the principal liable for the consequences. If an agent breaches a delegable duty, the principal might escape liability. 

Acts by Unlimited Partners and Joint Venture Partners   

Unlimited partners and joint venture partners are responsible for each other’s acts. This principle applies to multi-member partnerships, where each partner bears liability for the acts of every other partner.

Acts by Independent Contractors

Until recently, hiring parties could often escape liability for the acts of the people they hired by asserting that they hired an independent contractor, not an employee. They could then claim immunity from liability for the contractor’s acts unless an exception to immunity applied.

Trucking companies, for example, often used this principle to evade liability for trucking accidents.

If the courts agree that the person hired is an independent contractor rather than an employee, the hiring party will not bear automatic liability for their acts just because they were acting within the scope of their duties. You can, however, bear liability under an exception to the general rule of immunity.

You might not have immunity if:

  • The independent contractor was engaged in inherently dangerous activities;
  • The hiring party acted negligently when hiring, training, or supervising the contractor. The hiring party may have failed to check the driving record of a truck driver, for example.
  • The contractor breached a non-delegable duty (see above).

There is not necessarily a way to know beforehand how a court will classify someone.

California law concerning independent contractors changed recently. It is now much more difficult to classify someone as an independent contractor rather than an employee.

Courts are still working out the details. This change aims to increase the potential liability of people who hire others to work for them. Courts now classify commercial truckers, for example, as employees rather than independent contractors. 

A Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help

The concept of vicarious liability can help you find a defendant who can pay your claim’s full value. If an at-fault driver doesn’t carry enough insurance, for example, your lawyer might find another party to pay your claim.

Contact a personal injury lawyer for a free initial consultation.



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