What is “Respondeat Superior” in a Personal Injury Case?


Sometimes, if you are injured in a vehicle accident, you may be able to sue the employer of the driver who caused the crash. If you can do this, you will benefit because the employer may have better insurance than the driver, which means you could get a higher payment as compensation for your injuries.

You may wonder how you can sue the employer if the driver was at fault and caused the accident, but the employer was not directly at fault. The answer lies in a legal doctrine that is called “respondent superior.”

What is Respondent Superior?

“Respondent Superior” is a very old concept in law. Translated from the Latin, it means “let the master answer.” Centuries ago, it meant that “masters” were legally liable for the actions of their servants. Nowadays, it means that an employer may be legally liable for the bad actions of its employees.

When Does Respondent Superior Apply in Personal Injury Cases?

An employer is not liable for everything an employee does, but only for actions that the employee does in what lawyers call the “scope of employment.” Sometimes, it’s easy to tell if someone is acting within the scope of their employment, but other times it gets complicated, and an experienced personal injury attorney can be a big help in sorting it out.

Example of When You Can Use Respondent Superior

Say you were driving in your neighborhood, and a delivery truck for a local supermarket chain ran a red light and crashed into your car. The accident caused injuries to your back. A doctor told you that you would need surgery, and you knew that you were going to lose a great deal of time and pay at work.

In this situation, you can most likely sue the grocery chain that is the employer of the truck driver. That is because the driver, by delivering groceries for the chain, was acting within the scope of his or her employment, so the doctrine of respondent superior would apply.

This would be fortunate for you because you will have a lot of medical expenses at a time when you will not be able to go to work. If you could sue only the truck driver, the driver’s personal insurance might have low limits, and you might not be able to get all the money you needed to cover your medical bills and lost wages. By suing the grocery chain company, you will be dealing with the employer’s insurance company instead, which will be in a better position to pay you what you need.

What If the Driver Was an Independent Contractor?

The doctrine of respondent superior applies to employers and employees. Employers sometimes try to avoid liability by using independent contractors instead of employees. For example, a trucking company might treat its drivers as independent contractors instead of hiring them as regular employees.

However, this doesn’t always work for the companies the way that they hope it will. In some cases, if you are injured by a driver who is an independent contractor, you might still be able to sue the company whose vehicle the driver was using. This is because the courts look at many factors. If the company exerts a lot of control over the actions of its independent-contractor drivers, a court might say that respondent superior applies as if the driver were an employee. A good, experienced personal injury lawyer knows where to look for exceptions to the general rules that would work for your benefit.

How Do You Know If Someone Is Acting Within the Scope of Their Employment?

To sue the driver’s employer, the driver’s acts must be within the scope of his or her employment. Sometimes, it seems clear, like in the situation described above where an employee of a grocery store chain is making a delivery for the store using one of the store’s trucks.

Other times, it’s not as clear. Say that the driver has taken a three-hour break and was running his or her own personal errands. Even though the driver was using the company’s truck, the driver wasn’t using the truck to perform his or her job, which is delivering groceries to the company’s customers. In this situation, you probably couldn’t use respondent superior to sue the grocery company.

When it comes to deciding whether someone is acting within the scope of their employment in a personal injury case, there are many gray areas. The legal system will consider a long list of factors, including when and how the incident happened, whether a crime was committed, if what happened was foreseeable, if the driver was doing things for him- or herself or if the driver was doing things for the company, and whether the bad acts were intentional or negligent. This can get complicated, so it’s good to have an experienced personal injury lawyer on your side, someone who knows all the ins and outs of this area of the law.

If You Were Injured in an Accident, We Can Help

If you or a loved one were injured in an accident where the other driver was careless, we can help you get the compensation you need. The personal injury lawyers at Raynes & Lawn have recovered billions of dollars for those we represent. We are honored to be included in lists of the best lawyers in the state and the country. We would be glad to talk to you. Get in touch with us by using the simple contact form on our website, or call us at (800) 535-1797, and we will set up a free and confidential consultation.

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