What is vicarious liability?

Vicarious liability means that one party or entity is (vicariously) liable for the negligence committed by another. When applied in the employer-employee context, the term is called respondeat superior, which is Latin for let the superior answer. This doctrine applies to employers who are responsible for most torts committed by their employees.

For example, if you are driving down the road and a truck driver employed by Ace Trucking Company negligently hits your car, you can sue not only the truck driver but also Ace Trucking Company. The general rule is that employers are vicariously liable for the tortious acts of their employees. If you shop in a department store and an employee at the department store starts cursing at you and falsley accuses you of shoplifting without reasonable or probable cause, you can sue not only the employee individually but also the department store.

Employers generally are not liable for the torts of independent contractors. Thus, an important legal question in many tort cases is whether an alleged tortfeasor is an employee or an independent contractor. Take the example of a newspaper delivery person who negligently hits another vehicle. The question becomes whether the newspaper company can be sued for the tortious action of the delivery person. If the delivery person is an employee, then the newspaper publisher may be liable. If the delivery person is only an independent contractor, the newspaper publisher may not be liable.