Respondeat Superior in Personal Injury

Man serving coffee or tea to woman sitting at table

Respondeat superior is a legal doctrine that assigns liability to an employer for the negligent actions of an employee. Let’s take a look at some common examples of when respondeat superior may be invoked in a premises liability or personal injury case, and what to do if you are hurt by an employee at a place of business. 

What Does Respondeat Superior Mean?

Respondeat superior is a Latin phrase meaning “that the master must answer.” It has its roots in Ancient Rome, where it was largely applied to slaves who had caused injury to a third party while in the service of their master. For this reason, the doctrine is also often called the Master-Servant doctrine. 

When Does Respondeat Superior Apply?

Just because an employee caused harm on the clock does not necessarily mean the employer is responsible. The exact standards for invoking respondeat superior are set forth by state governments, so they can vary according to jurisdiction. In general, however, the following criteria must be met in order for an employer to be held liable for the actions of an employee:

  1. The employee must have been working for the employer when the accident occurred.
  2. The employee was performing duties relevant and consistent with his or her job.
  3. The employee was working for the benefit of the employer.   

For example, let’s say a server at a restaurant is attempting to refill a coffee cup. In the process, she accidentally spills some on the customer’s hand, causing a serious burn. It can be reasonably argued that the server was working when this happened, that she was doing a task within the scope of her employment, and that she was working for the benefit of her employer. In this case, the owner of the restaurant or whomever her employer is can be held liable for the burn injury under respondeat superior.  

What About Independent Contractors?

In general, respondeat superior applies only to employees, not independent contractors. This is because independent contractors operate largely outside of the control of those they are working for. For example, an employer cannot necessarily tell an independent contractor when to work, where to work, or what supplies to use. 

However, there are exceptions to this rule. If it is determined that an employer had sufficient  control over the actions of an independent contractor, they may still be held at least partially liable under respondeat superior. 

Proving Respondeat Superior

The first step in proving respondeat superior is establishing the employee-employer relationship. A personal injury attorney will collect supporting documentation, such as pay stubs, tax forms, and schedules to prove employment status. 

The next step will be to prove that the employee was performing ordinary duties associated with his or her work. A job description or training manual may be used to highlight specific tasks expected of the employee. 

Finally, a personal injury attorney must prove that the employee was working to further the interests of his or her employer when the accident occurred. In general, this could be interpreted as an employee working to increase or maintain profits for an employer. Specifically, as in our above example, you could say that the server was attending to a customer who was patronizing a restaurant, which depends on new and repeat clientele. 

What To Do If You Are Hurt By An Employee?

The first thing you should do if you are hurt by an employee at any place of business is to address your injuries. Once you are safe, you will need to contact an experienced personal injury attorney. Your lawyer will help you determine if the respondeat superior doctrine applies in your case, or if you need to pursue separate legal action against the employee. Your attorney will also help you gather documentation, witness statements, video footage, and other evidence to prove you were hurt due to the negligence of another. 

If you have been injured in the state of Colorado, please contact Dave Roth with the Roth Group. Dave is an experienced personal injury attorney who will help you seek fair compensation from those responsible for your accident. Call or go online today to schedule a free consultation