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To what extent are principals liable for the torts committed by agents?
An individual is always liable for her own conduct. Whenever an individual is held liable for the actions of another, this is known as “vicarious liability”. In the context of agency, the agent is acting vicariously for the principal. A principal is responsible for the tortious acts of an agent pursuant to a doctrine known as “respondeat superior”. More specifically, an agent may create legal liability for the principal for actions taken by the agent “within the scope of the agency”. In such cases, the principal and agent are “jointly and severally” liable for the harm caused by the agent’s conduct. An act is within the scope of the agency if the purpose behind the action taken is to advance the interests of the principal. As such, if any act taken by an employee in an effort to advance the employer’s interest is a tort, the employer may be liable for that conduct.
- Note: Generally, intentional torts are generally not considered to be within the scope of an employee’s duties or employment. As such, a principal will not be liable for the intentional torts committed by an employee unless the principal ordered or condoned the tortious conduct. Even if a tort is within the scope of employment, it will not relieve the agent from personal liability for her actions.
- Example: I am an employee of a corporation. While carrying out my duties, I act negligently and harm a third party. The third party sues the corporation and me. The corporation will be liable for my negligent act because I was acting within the scope of my job responsibilities when I committed the tort.
Discussion: How do you feel about a business being held liable for the tortious activity of its agents (employees)? Does it matter if the tort is negligence, intentional, or strict liability? How do you think the court should define “within the scope of employment”?
Practice Question: Mitchell is an employee of Big Corp. His primary responsibilities are to deliver company goods to retailers. When out driving to a retailer’s location, Mitchell is following to closely and accidentally rear ends Bertha. Bertha sues Mitchell for negligence. What is the likely result for Big Corp?
- Vicarious liability arises when the principal becomes legally liable for the actions of the agent. In a tort action, this is based on the principle of respondent superior or “let the master answer” for the actions of the agent. A principle will be liable for the negligence of the agent when the agent is acting within the scope of authority and there is no frolic and detour by the agent. In this case, because Mitchell was acting in the scope of his duties, Big Corp will likely be liable if sued by Bertha.