Respondeat Superior

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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Page 334

[Latin, Let the master answer.] A common-law doctrine that makes an employer liable for the actions of an employee when the actions take place within the scope of employment.

The common-law doctrine of respondeat superior was established in seventeenth-century England to define the legal liability of an employer for the actions of an employee. The doctrine was adopted in the United States and has been a fixture of agency law. It provides a better chance for an injured party to actually recover damages, because under respondeat superior the employer is liable for the injuries caused by an employee who is working within the scope of his employment relationship.

Page 335

The legal relationship between an employer and an employee is called agency. The employer is called the principal when engaging someone to act for him. The person who does the work for the employer is called the agent. The theory behind respondeat superior is that the principal controls the agent's behavior and must then assume some responsibility for the agent's actions.

An employee is an agent for her employer to the extent that the employee is authorized to act for the employer and is partially entrusted with the employer's business. The employer controls, or has a right to control, the time, place, and method of doing work. When the facts show that an employer-employee (principal-agent) relationship exists, the employer can be held responsible for the injuries caused by the employee in the course of employment.

In general, employee conduct that bears some relationship to the work will usually be considered within the scope of employment. The question whether an employee was acting within the scope of employment at the time of the event depends on the particular facts of the case. A court may consider the employee's job description or assigned duties, the time, place, and purpose of the employee's act, the extent to which the employee's actions conformed to what she was hired to do, and whether such an occurrence could reasonably have been expected.

When Is an Employee on the Job?

The crucial question in a respondeat superior claim is whether the employee was acting within the scope of employment: Was the employee involved in some activity related to the job? In 1991 the Supreme Court of Virginia decided a case, Sayles v. Piccadilly Cafeterias, Inc.,242 Va. 328, 410 S.E.2d...

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