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Who Is Responsible For Your Injuries -- The Employee Who Actually Injured You Or The Employer?

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If a company employee makes a mistake that ends up harming somebody else, who is ultimately responsible -- the employee or the company? Most of the time, the law hold each individual accountable for his or her own actions. An exception exists, however, that often makes employers responsible for the negligent actions of their employees under the legal theory of respondeat superior. What is this and why is it important if you've been injured by somebody else's actions while they were on company time?

An Employer's Liability For The Employee's Actions

The term "respondeat superior" is Latin for "let the master answer," and it is used to transfer liability from the employee/servant to the employer/master. Why would the courts do this? Partially, the courts reason that when the employee is acting on behalf of his or her employer, so it's the employer who is authorizing the activity or benefiting from it in some way. Partially, it is to encourage employers to be responsible and make sure that their employees are adequately trained to do their jobs safely. General society benefits from this not only because it makes the world safer, but because it puts the responsibility for any financial losses suffered on the backs of those best able to bear the costs: the company and its insurers.

You also benefit from this. If you're injured by an employee's direct actions or negligence, you probably don't stand to recover much in a lawsuit against the employee. For example, if the employee of a fast food chain serves you scalding hot coffee without a secure lid and you get burned, you might want to file a lawsuit to recover your medical bills, lost wages for any time you were off work, and for your suffering. Filing a lawsuit against a minimum-wage employee with little or no insurance probably won't help you. However, if you can file your lawsuit against a well-insured company and win, you'll be able to recoup your losses.

The Employee's Status And Scope Of Employment

In order to be successful in a case under the theory of respondeat superior, you usually have to prove that the person who injured you was an actual employee of the company that you're trying to sue. That's usually easy enough to do, although some cases can get sticky if the employer has misclassified an employee as an independent contractor for some reason.

You also have to prove that the employee's actions were within the scope of his or her employment. That's often broadly interpreted by the courts and each state has a somewhat different standard. However, there are several things that most cases have in common:

  • the actions took place at the employer's place of business and while the employee was "on the clock;"
  • the employee was acting in his or her official capacity as a representative of the business;
  • the actions of the employee were at least partially to benefit the employer; 
  • the harm could have been foreseeable (and prevented) by the employer.

For example, a real-life case that's currently pending in the courts involves an employee of a used car lot that took a truck as a trade-in from a plumber. The plumber's business decals, with the name of his business and the business phone number, were prominently displayed on the old truck. The used car lot employee stopped the plumber from removing the decals, saying that it would damage the paint, and promised that they would be removed later.

Unfortunately, the decals weren't removed, and the car was sold overseas where it was eventually sold to Islamic jihadists. When a photo of the truck, complete with the plumber's business name and phone number on it, went viral on the internet and made the news, the plumbing company was forced to shut down for a while because of harassment and threats. The plumber is now suing the used car lot for a million dollar business loss under the theory of respondeat superior. On the surface, at least, the complaint would seem to meet all the necessary criteria to hold the car lot liable for its employee's negligent actions.

If you've been injured by the actions of a company's employee, discuss the situation with a personal injury attorney. The company, not the employee, may be liable for your damages.