Most times, a liability lawsuit is directed at the negligent party. Sometimes, a lawsuit can involve parties who are not directly involved in the dispute because of the relationship the outside party has with the defendant.
Indirect Parties to a Lawsuit
Eager to start your day, you run into the local diner to grab a cup of coffee and a donut. When the waitress arrives to pour your coffee, you notice that she is a bit wobbly on her feet. You also notice she is wearing a medical alert bracelet, but don't pay much attention to it. She pours the steaming hot coffee in your cup, on the table and even your lap. After letting out a loud yelp, it becomes painfully obvious that you require medical attention to treat your first-degree burns. This means you will be out of work, unable to wear pants and need costly follow-up care.
You think 'someone must pay for this action!' The waitress was unable to perform her job due to what could have been a medical condition. And you are correct - well, sort of. Someone must pay, but it is the employer that will bear the brunt of this waitress's actions. You see, the doctrine of vicarious liability holds that there can be a person responsible for the actions of another because of a special relationship the parties maintain, like employee/employer and parent/child.
At one time, the courts held that a husband may be responsible for the actions of his wife. This contention has long been abandoned. Let's explore the employee/employer relationship for a moment. When an employee causes injury or damages to another party during the course of his employment, the employer may become the responsible party. This is all because of the doctrine of respondeat superior. In Latin, this translates to 'let the master answer' and, in modern times, means the employer is responsible for the actions of his employees, if the actions cause injury to a party to which the employer owes a duty of care.
In order for a court to determine whether an employee acted within the scope of employment, the court will look at a few things:
- The act or action occurred while the employee was at the workplace and within the hours of the employee's schedule.
- The employer must have employed the employee at the time of the incident. In other words, the employee had a reason to be at work at the time.
- The injury was a result of the act or actions of the employee in the capacity that the employee was hired (a waitress is hired to serve coffee, amongst other things).
The criteria are important in determining the level of responsibility the employer has to such acts or actions. In this case, the waitress may have been ill while at work. This may have contributed to her spilling the coffee. Let's look at a case involving a fight between an employee and a shopkeeper.
Lange v. Nabisco Biscuit Company
Ronnell Lynch, a Nabisco Biscuit Company salesperson, was hired in March of 1969 to deliver and stock bakery products on store shelves. Given his own territory, Lynch made stops at local stores to replenish previously delivered products for consumer purchase. Sometime on May 1, 1969, Lynch arrived at Lange's store to stock the shelves, but noticed that the prime shelf space was not available.
After exchanging words with Lange over the use of specific shelves, Lynch violently assaulted Lange. On his way out of the store, Lynch even threw products on the floor. Lange subsequently sued Nabisco Biscuit Company for damages he suffered at the hands of their employee and won. The simple test proved that Lynch was working for Nabisco, making him an agent, or representative of the company at the time.
During that time, he violated the company's duty of care to an entity or relation to the company and an injury was suffered as a result. It was the court's belief that regardless of whether the employer knew of, authorized or whether the act was willful, the employee acted within the scope of his job.
Other Forms of Vicarious Liability
How does vicarious liability work when someone borrows your car and wrecks it? The law sees it this way. Depending on the specific state law, once you hand over the keys, you are assuming responsibility for anything that happens with the vehicle. That is even if you're not present.
The parent/child relationship is especially vulnerable to vicarious liability. When a parent of a minor, meaning a child under the age of 18, allows the child to borrow the family car, they are entering into a negligent entrustment. This means that the parent may be knowingly allowing an incompetent, reckless or inexperienced person use the vehicle. Incompetence can come in many forms, not just an inexperienced driver. Here are some other instances:
- An intoxicated driver
- An unlicensed driver
- A driver with an illness like epilepsy, or even a heart condition
- A knowingly reckless driver
Similarly, the family purpose doctrine is when a car is purchased and used by multiple members of the family and means that the owner of the car is held liable for any damages sustained as a result of an accident. It is important to know each state's laws specifically. Each court may rule differently on the degree to which a person who is indirectly involved in an accident is liable.
To sum things up, vicarious liability holds one person responsible for the actions of another because of a special relationship the parties maintain. This can be employee/employer or parent/child relationships. Vicarious liability sometimes extends beyond the aforementioned relationships, especially in damages resulting from an automobile accident. By allowing an intoxicated person, elderly person or even a previously reckless driver to use a vehicle, the owner may be liable for injury.
In the employee/employer relationship, the doctrine of respondeat superior, which is Latin for 'let the master answer,' means the employer is responsible for the actions of his employees if the actions cause injury to a party to which the employer owes a duty of care. The degree of vicarious liability boils down to a few important questions: did the act or action occur while the employee was at the workplace and within the hours of the employee's schedule?
Another question may be asked; did the employer employ the employee at the time of the incident? In other words, did the employee have a reason to be at work at that time? And finally, was the injury a result of the act or actions of the employee in the capacity the employee was hired?
The family car brings to light another form of vicarious liability. The family purpose doctrine is considered when the family car is used by other members of the household. It holds that if a car is purchased and used by multiple members of the family, the owner of the car is held liable for any damages sustained as a result of an accident. Finally, negligent entrustment involves knowingly allowing an incompetent, reckless or inexperienced person to use the vehicle. This does not require a special relationship be proven like family ties or employee/employer relationship - simply lending a car to a friend qualifies.
When you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define vicarious liability and negligent entrustment
- Recall the doctrine of respondeat superior
- Explain the family purpose doctrine