Respondeat Superior: What Does it Mean?

Respondeat Superior is a Latin phrase that means- Let the master answer. This is a common-law doctrine that holds an employer legally liable for the actions of an employee when the actions take place within the scope of employment and under the supervision of the employer.


“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. 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” (Legal Dictionary).


How can Respondeat Superior apply?

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 respondeat superior applies, an employer will be liable for an employee’s negligent actions or omissions that occur during the course and scope of the employee’s employment. This means that the employee must be performing duties for the employer at the time of the negligence for the employer to be held liable under respondeat superior” (Justia).

The question in a legal case becomes whether an employee was in fact acting within the normally expected scope of employment when the actions occurred that are being called up in the case. A court may consider the employee’s job description or assigned duties, the time, place, and purpose of the employee’s act and whether their actions were indeed part of their normal job or if they were acting as an employee with the intent of fulfilling their job or furthering the interest of their employer at the time of the incident.


An example of Respondeat Superior

For example, if there is a personal injury case that involves a situation where a truck driver’s negligence results in a truck accident, the injured individual can also try to bring the driver’s employer-often the trucking company itself- into the case and hold them liable as well. This can make a big difference as to whether the victim of the accident actually recovers all of his or her damages after obtaining a judgment. A plaintiff need not show that the employer was independently negligent but must prove there was an employment relationship.

It is common practice for many trucking companies and similar industries to hire workers as independent contractors as a way to avoid being held legally responsible for their actions and any lawsuits that arise because of the work they do for their client. Respondeat superior only applies to employment relationships, not the relationship between a company and an independent contractor. However, most courts will still hold a worker as an employee if other criteria are meat, even if they are given the title of independent contractor. This is why it is important to know all of the details of the incident involved in the case.


When can an employer be held liable?

According to, the party in a lawsuit attempting to hold an employer vicariously liable for the actions of an employee must prove each of the following:

  1. The individual was an employee when the injury occurred
  2. The employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment
  3. The activities of the employee were a benefit to the employer

In general, even if an employee does act outside the scope of employment, an employer can be held liable in some jurisdictions if it subsequently ratifies the wrongful actions. The question that must be answered in respondeat superior cases is whether the employee’s acts were in furtherance of the employer’s interests. It is still a very complicated process and it is not something that a plaintiff should attempt on their own!

If you have questions about an injury you sustained, the strength of a personal injury case you have, or have questions about who is responsible for your injury, give us a call.  Our team is ready to go to work for you and will assist you with every step of the process. Call today to schedule your free consultation review with our legal team and take the first step towards forming your personal injury case and invoking the legal power of respondeat superior and fight for your rights with us by your side.