What Is the Extent of an Employer’s Liability For the Acts of an Employee?

An employer can be liable for injury done by an employee to a third party under the doctrine known as vicarious liability. Vicarious liability can arise when the employee’s activity that caused the injury was done 1) on the express orders or directions of the employer, 2) carrying out the employer’s business within the scope of employment, or 3) when the employee is acting with the express or implied authority of the employer.

An obvious example of vicarious liability would be an automobile accident caused by a delivery driver while making his rounds in the employer’s delivery van.  These things happen, and the employer will presumably carry liability insurance that covers such events.  But the existence of such insurance can induce lawyers for the injured third party to test the extent to which vicarious liability can be stretched.

In a case recently decided in the Superior Court at Hartford, the injured party’s claim exceeded the limits of vicarious liability.  The accident occurred on a Sunday evening, and the employee was not on duty.  She had in fact been visiting friends, but on her way home she stopped at her cousin’s house to borrow some clothes which she thought would be suitable for a business meeting on Monday morning.  She then went to a Chinese restaurant to pick up a take-out meal for her family, and then had an accident in which the other driver was killed.

The deceased driver’s estate sued the employee individually, but also sued the employer.  The claim was that the trip to her cousin’s house was incidental to and within the scope of the employee’s employment because her purpose was to comply with the employer’s dress code for a business meeting.  The Court deemed this claim an overreach which expanded vicarious liability beyond any reasonable bounds.  Although compliance with a dress code might be deemed a work obligation, the  employee’s personal choice to borrow an outfit on her own time on Sunday was not compelled by the duties of her job.

This case illustrates that the employment relationship is complex, with a variety of possible issues.  Fortunately for this employer, the Court imposed reasonable limits on the extent of the employer’s liability.