Respondeat Superior

The Latin term respondeat superior, which translates as “let the master answer,” refers to a legal doctrine in which an employer may be held responsible for the actions of his employees, when the actions are performed “in the course of employment.” In order for respondeat superior to apply, there must be a clear employee-employer relationship established, as the principle does not apply to actions by an independent contractor. To explore this concept, consider the following respondeat superior definition.

Definition of Respondeat Superior


res-pon’-dee-aht superior


  1. The responsibility of an employer or principal for his agent’s or employee’s acts performed in the course of employment.


Medieval Latin

History of the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior

The doctrine of respondeat superior dates back to 17th century England, where the law held a master or employer legally liable for the actions of his servant or employee. This association only applied to acts done in the course of the servant or employee’s duties, or at the direction of the employer. This provided a more reliable way for people to recover damages for a wrongful act, as servants and employees rarely had the financial means to pay, and even the courts found it to be an injustice to force such agents to pay for acts done in the names of their employers. The doctrine of respondeat superior followed the colonists to the United States with their familiar common law system.

Determining When an Employer-Employee Relationship Exists

The doctrine of respondeat superior allows the law to hold an employer responsible for the acts of an employee. Therefore, determining when such a relationship exists, and therefore which party may be held liable, is of vital importance. Generally speaking, three facts must be taken into consideration:

  1. Was the act carried out while the employee was on the clock?
  2. Was the act carried out as part the employee’s job duties, or the agent’s responsibilities?
  3. Was the act of the same nature as the employee’s job responsibilities?
  4. Was the employee motivated to commit the act for the purpose of benefitting the employer?

Employer Liability in Intentional Acts

Although it is relatively easy to determine employer liability for an employee’s actions during the course of employment, the issue of intentional acts, which may be criminal in nature, is less clear. Many employers believe that any criminal acts committed by an employee, whether he is on or off the clock, are the sole responsibility of that employee. This issue is not black-and-white, however, but depends on the specific circumstances of the case.

While the issue of whether the employee’s acts were negligent or intentional is considered first, the courts commonly consider whether justice is served by holding the employer liable. The decision on whether the employer can be held liable for an employee’s intentional act depends on whether that act was committed within the scope and course of his employment, or at the direction of the employer.

For example:

Steve is employed as a security guard at a large, and very busy, pawn shop. Steve’s job is to walk around the shop, creating a presence to reduce theft. A customer starts an argument with Steve, and is ushered out the door by another security guard. Steve, however, becomes angry and follows the man out into the parking lot, and punches him, and then a fight ensues. Several days later, the customer files a small claims lawsuit seeking payment for medical bills, as well as for pain and suffering.

Asking the man to leave the shop when he caused a problem is within the scope of Steve’s employment. Losing his temper, chasing the man outside, then physically assaulting him is not. In such a case, it is unlikely that respondeat superior would apply, as justice would not be served to hold the employer responsible for Steve’s illegal act.

Respondeat Superior When a Duty of Special Care Exists

In situations in which an employer has a duty of special care and protection, such as a hospital, doctor’s office, hotel owner, or common carrier (bus, passenger train, or airline), the employer is commonly held liable, even if the employee acted solely for personal reasons. These types of employers are held to a higher standard of care, which includes the responsibility to not hire employees who are likely to pose a danger to customers or the public.

For example:

Helpful Home Care hires Sally to work as a home healthcare worker. Sally has been fired from three previous jobs in the field for mistreating patients, but Helpful Home Care fails to confirm with her previous employers why she left. Two months into her employment, a complaint is received from an elderly patient’s family, saying that twice he has had bruises around his wrists, and on his legs, and recently he sustained a large bump on his forehead. The patient tells the manager of Helpful that Sally is impatient, and deals with him roughly, squeezing his arms, shoving him around, and causing him to fall at least once.

Not only might Sally’s employer be held responsible for Sally’s actions, which were committed while she was on duty and in the scope of her employment, but the employer may be held liable for carelessly or negligently hiring an individual who has a history of abusing patients.

In such a case, the law does not allow the employee to escape justice by holding her employer solely responsible. Rather, both Sally and her employer are likely to face legal consequences. Both may be subject to civil liability by the filing of a civil lawsuit, and Sally may face criminal charges for her actions.

Respondeat Superior in Post-Party Accident

On Christmas Eve 1987, Stephen Belcastro left his company’s party drunk, and attempted to drive home. Belcastro lost control of his car, which traveled into oncoming traffic, and crashed into a car occupied by Charles Sayles, who was seriously injured. Because Belcastro had become drunk taking advantage of alcoholic beverages provided by his employer at the company-sponsored party, Sayles sued Belcastro’s employer, Piccadilly Cafeterias, Inc. under the doctrine of respondeat superior. The jury agreed with Sayles, and awarded him damages in the amount of $11.5 million.

On appeal, that judgment was overturned, when the appellate court ruled that Belcastro had been acting outside the scope of his job duties when he caused the accident, and that the employer could not be held responsible. Sayles then appealed the matter to the Virginia Supreme Court, which saw the case differently.

The Court made the point that attendance at the company party was not required, and that the accident did not occur on the Piccadilly premises, but several minutes after Belcastro had left the property. The Court determined that Belcastro had not been acting in the scope of his employment, or in any manner on behalf of his employer at the time of the accident, and ruled that the employer could not be held liable.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a la has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Negligence – Failure to exercise a degree of care that would be taken by another reasonable person in the same circumstances.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.

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