What is Respondeat Superior and Could it Affect an Accident Claim?
Respondeat superior is a legal doctrine that evolved from the relationship between master and servant. The master benefits from the activities of the servant and so should also bear the responsibility for the servant who injures another whilst carrying out the master’s business. In more modern times, respondeat superior can apply in situations where one party is furthering the business interests of another – such as between agent and principal or employee and employer.
When an accident is caused by an employee during working hours, the potential exists for respondeat superior to apply and hold the employer liable for the damage. But the doctrine does not apply automatically. There must be an employer/employee relationship and the employee must be acting within the scope of the employment at the time the accident occurs.
When an Employee’s Actions are Within the Scope of Employment
An employee’s scope of employment consists of the duties and activities performed by the employee on behalf of an employer or in furtherance of an employer’s business. As long as the primary purpose of an employee’s actions is related to their employment, small deviations that may be considered non-business will not relieve an employer from respondeat superior liability.
A 2018 case decided by the 8th District Court in Clark County demonstrates just how conclusive the primary purpose of an employee’s actions is in determining employer liability. In Kaye v. JRJ Invs., the plaintiff was riding his bike past the exit of a BMW dealership when a dealership employee backed out of the parking lot, injuring the plaintiff.
One of the plaintiff’s theories of liability was respondeat superior. The facts showed that the employee was on a break from work, was in his own car, and going on a personal errand. The court held respondeat superior did not apply because the employee’s conduct did not have a business purpose so there was not sufficient employer control at the time of the accident. The court pointed out the employee was not paid during breaks – leaving open the possibility a salaried employee might be viewed differently.
Commuting to and from Work – Nevada’s ‘Going and Coming’ Rule
Nevada courts have long held that an employee who is driving to or from work is not generally considered to be acting within the scope of employment. However, if an employee is running an errand for an employer after work or is conducting some business on behalf of an employer during non-business hours, then the employee is acting within the scope of employment until the employer’s business is completed.
Why is an Employer Held Responsible for the Actions of an Employee?
The law says that when an employee is acting on behalf of an employer and causes harm to a third party, the employee’s actions are deemed to be those of the employer as well as their own. The liability imposed on an employer is indirect or vicarious because it attaches due to the relationship between the employer and the employee rather than the employer’s direct contribution to a third party’s injuries.
The rationale for holding employers liable for the actions of employees has to do with the benefit provided to an employer by having employees and the control an employer has over the activities of the employees.
Two Essential Elements Necessary to Prove Respondeat Superior
Before an employer will be held liable for injuries caused by an employee, a party trying to establish respondeat superior must show that at the time of the accident:
- The employee was under the control of the employer
- The employee was performing activities within the scope of employment
The Issue of Employer Control over an Employee
For the doctrine of respondeat superior to apply, an employer must have control over the work activities of an employee. The issue of employer control distinguishes employees from other types of contract workers that may also be employed.
When considering the issue of employer control, it is useful to review Nevada’s wage and hour laws regarding independent contractors and how they are to be distinguished from employees. Persons are presumed to be independent contractors and not employees when they:
- Maintain their own occupational or business license
- Control the means, manner, performance, and result of the work performed
- Determine the time for completion of the work
- Are not required to work for only one employer
- Can hire their own employees
- Have invested a substantial amount in business assets
If employers control the factors distinguishing independent contractors from employees, they are exercising the kind of control over a worker that can establish the first element of respondeat superior.
How an Employer Might be Liable for the Intentional Acts of an Employee
Employers are generally not held responsible for the intentional actions of employees who cause injury to others. The Nevada Legislature has said employers are not liable for the injuries caused by the intentional conduct of an employee when the conduct is:
- ‘A truly independent venture’
- Not part of the task assigned by the employer
- Not reasonably foreseeable by the employer
Whether an employee’s conduct is reasonably foreseeable is determined by what a person of ordinary intelligence and care could have expected the employee to do under the same circumstances. The Nevada Supreme Court case of Wood v. Safeway illustrates how the courts will determine whether an employee’s intentional acts are reasonably foreseeable by an employer.
Plaintiff Doe was a Safeway employee hired through a special program for placing workers with mental disabilities. Doe was sexually assaulted several times while at work by an employee of a janitorial company Safeway had hired to clean the store.
One of Doe’s claims was that the janitorial company was responsible for the employee’s criminal actions because it hired transient people who were not adequately supervised and it was foreseeable they might sexually harass vulnerable women.
In determining the intentional actions of the employee were not reasonably foreseeable, the court looked at what the company actually knew about the employee. The employee had no prior criminal record, and there had never been any indication of sexual harassment by the employee during the time he had worked for the janitorial company.
Respondeat Superior and Accident Claims
Any time someone is injured by someone else, the question should be asked whether the responsible party was working for an employer at the time the injury occurred. If the injury was accidental and the employee’s primary purpose was the business of the employer, respondeat superior will likely apply. If the injury was intentional, respondeat superior only applies if the employee’s actions should have been reasonably anticipated by the employer based on information known about the employee.