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Respondeat Superior and Vicarious Liability for Employee Conduct

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Paul R. Bedard, EsquirePaul R. Bedard, Esquire

There are many circumstances that may result in an employer being vicariously liable for its employee's conduct. Public policy dictates that, under certain circumstances, the party who suffers harm should be able to obtain redress from the enterprise that benefits from the employee or agent who inflicted the harm. Public policy aims to minimize the recurrence of the conduct at issue while also providing victims an increased ability to obtain compensation when attempting to be made whole from a legal standpoint.

Vicarious liability applies to employer-employee relationships and other situations involving a third party that possesses the right and the duty to direct the actions of the negligent person. Federal, state and local laws impact the causes of action available against an employer due to an employee's negligent conduct. One of the fundamental doctrines in this regard is the doctrine of respondeat superior.

Respondeat superior is Latin for "let the master answer." The master in this context is the employer. Under the theory of vicarious liability, an employer is deemed liable for the conduct of its employee for acts committed within the employee's "course and scope of employment." This legal theory rests upon the premise that the employer has the right, duty or ability to control the actions of the employee. When the employer authorizes the employee's actions, or when the employee's actions are related to an approved action, these actions are generally considered to be within the employee's course and scope of employment.

Whether or not an employee's actions are conducted within the employee's course and scope of employment is pivotal in determining whether employer liability exists under the doctrine of respondeat superior. Although one might think that defining what constitutes "course and scope of employment" would be straightforward, courts have varied in this regard. Therefore, there are different legal rules and standards. However, from a practical standpoint, there are factors worthy of consideration when trying to determine whether an employee was acting within their course and scope of employment:

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