Accomplice & Vicarious Liability: Similarities & Differences

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Sometimes a person is guilty for the acts of another and will suffer the same penalty. In this lesson, we will learn the similarities and differences of accomplice and vicarious liability.

I Didn't Do That

What if the police came to your door and arrested you, and when you asked what for, they told you because someone else robbed a bank? Does that make any sense? Under what circumstances would that ever occur?


Liability is the idea that someone is responsible for their actions. If you drive too fast and kill someone, then you will have to pay the consequences, which might include criminal charges and a civil lawsuit. So what makes someone liable? Almost everyone is responsible for their actions. Of course, there are exceptions, such as a child or mentally handicapped person. But generally speaking, this is how our society works.

Sometimes, however, there are circumstances where someone could be responsible for the actions of another. If a child knocks over a display in a store, the store could seek payment from the parent. Are there other examples? Does that include criminal acts as well? What if a child punches another child at school, do we charge the parent? The answer is probably not, but what if the parent told the child to punch the other kid? How do we know when someone is responsible for another's actions?

Accomplice Liability

When someone commits a crime and has assistance, the helper might be liable for the crime as well. This depends on the level of criminal intent (the desire to commit a crime), the helper has when the crime occurred. If that person had no idea that the principal (primary actor in the commission of a crime) was committing a crime, then there is no liability for the helper. However, if the person assisted with the intent of committing the crime to its completion, then that person is an accomplice and is liable for the crime, the same as the principal.

For example, let's say Bert decides to steal a car. He asks his friend Ernie to give him a ride to the used car lot, and Bert gets out and steals a car. So, was Ernie an unwitting helper to a crime? Or was he an accomplice? If Ernie knew what Bert was up to, and drove him there so he could do it, then he was an accomplice and thus has accomplice liability, which means he is on the hook for all of Bert's actions, during the commission of the crime.

So let's say after Bert steals the car, Ernie drives off and heads home. Bert gets stopped by a cop on his way home, and he shoots the cop. Accomplice liability says Ernie is also liable for killing the cop, even though he didn't pull the trigger. This would be true even if Ernie didn't have a gun, never would shoot anyone, and didn't even know Bert had a gun.

Vicarious Liability

Similar to accomplice liability, vicarious liability also makes one responsible for the actions of another. However, instead of the principal being a primary actor in a crime, vicarious liability means that when the principal has someone acting on their behalf, they are responsible for that person's actions. This can refer to a person's liability in committing a crime, but it's typically used when a person has someone acting on their behalf.

In the criminal context, it would be a hitman hired to kill someone. The person who hired the hitman is liable for the shooter's acts. However, the term is typically used in a non-criminal context such as master-servant, principal-agent, or employer-employee

This concept comes from the English common law doctrine of respondeat superior which in Latin means, the master is responsible for the servant. In the modern application of this doctrine, the rule is the employer is responsible for the actions of the employee, but for only those actions done in the course and scope of the employment.

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