Many employees are required to drive vehicles, either their own or company-owned, as part of their job duties. When an employee causes an accident that results in harm to a third party, his employer may be held liable, even if the employer had no intention to harm someone and nothing to do with the harmful act.

Why Hold Employers Responsible?

Employers have a great degree of responsibility. They are expected to provide a safe work environment for their employees, train them, and direct their behavior regarding the time, place, and method used to perform their work. Employers must take the good with the bad — not only reaping the profits of an employee’s labor but also at times assuming responsibility for negligent employee behavior that causes harm. Whenever an employer-employee relationship exists, the doctrine of respondeat superior, Latin for “let the superior respond,” applies.

Respondeat Superior

Respondeat superior is based upon the presumption that an employer holds a position of authority and control over the employee, at least while the employment relationship is in effect. Respondeat superior is recognized in all 50 states, and obligates employers to exercise their authority and control over employees for the safety of third parties.

Employers are said to vicariously liable for the negligent acts or omissions of their employees while they are in the course and scope of their employment. For an act to be considered within the course and scope of someone’s employment, it must be:

  • Authorized by the employer, or
  • Very closely related to an act authorized by the employer

The underlying theory behind respondeat superior is that employers should not hire reckless or careless people and expose third parties to risk while employees are under the supervision of the employer.

Detour or Frolic?

There is a difference between an accident caused by an employee who deviates slightly from the course and scope of his employment (detour) and an accident that occurred on the job but is unrelated to someone’s work duties (frolic):

  • Detour — A slight deviation from the course and scope of someone’s employment, but still closely related. Example: An employee who is encouraged by his employer to entertain customers after work hits a pedestrian while driving home. Because the detour was considered a part of doing business, the employer would likely be held liable for the pedestrian’s injuries, unless other circumstances were present, i.e. the employee was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Frolic — An employee acts in his own capacity purely for his own benefit, rather than that of his employer. Example: An employee who regularly drives a company vehicle to make sales calls decides to stop at a bar after work and causes an accident upon leaving the bar. Because the employee was not in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident, his employer likely would not be held liable for the damages he caused.

The Deeper the Pocket, the More Likely to Pay

Right or wrong, employers are often held liable for the conduct of their employees, but these rules do not allow the employee to avoid responsibility for harm he has caused. Injured parties typically sue both the employee and employer, but because the employee usually cannot afford to pay the amount of damages awarded in a lawsuit, the employer, sometimes referred to as the deep pocket, is the party who is more likely to pay.

Image by Helen K.

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