What is Vicarious Liability?

You likely have a basic understanding of the concept of liability in regard to personal injury cases. You may one day be injured because someone else is negligent. They could be required to compensate you for your medical bills and related losses.

However, the party who causes your accident isn’t always the one that compensates you. In personal injury law, a party that supervises others may be “vicariously liable” for any damages caused by those they supervise. 

Keep reading to learn more about this topic. The following overview explains what vicarious liability involves. It also offers several examples of circumstances in which the concept may apply.

Vicarious Liability: What You Need to Know

The party responsible for compensating you after an accident isn’t always the party who caused your injuries. For example, suppose a grocery store employee mopped the floor but failed to put up a sign letting customers know it was wet. You later slipped and fell as a result.

You might assume the employee who didn’t put up the “wet floor” caution sign would be the liable party in these circumstances. It’s more likely that their employer would be considered liable.

A party that supervises others can be vicariously liable for their employee or agent’s negligence. This relates to the concept of respondeat superior and is most commonly seen in the employer-employee relationship. An employer is liable for the acts of their employees that are within the scope of the employee’s job. However, they are not liable for the acts of independent contractors. 

The employer in our example above will be responsible for their employee’s negligence. The employee’s mopping of the floor was within the scope of the employment relationship. Therefore, the employer is vicariously liable for your damages after the slip and fall.

Examples of Vicarious Liability

These extra examples of vicarious liability will help you better understand the concept:

  • A trucking company might be vicariously liable for accidents its drivers cause
  • A hospital must compensate a victim of medical malpractice when one of its doctors causes injury through carelessness
  • A business or restaurant owner could be liable for acts of its employees that cause a slip and fall (like the example above)

Someone who supervises others should be able to prevent them from negligently causing accidents. They are vicariously liable when they fail to supervise a negligent individual properly.

However, an employer is not liable for the acts of its employees that occur outside the scope of employment. Accordingly, they may not be liable for employee conduct that occurs off-duty and after hours. Likewise, a principal is not liable for the acts of an independent contractor.

Whether a person is an employee or independent contractor depends on the amount of control the principal exercises over them. The compensation a person receives for work and the skill required to perform their job also influences whether they are an employee or independent contractor.

Generally, a principal exercises minimal control and supervision over an independent contractor they hire to perform a job. The principal contracts for the job, but the independent contractor controls the details of the work. Conversely, a principal/employer exercises a great degree of control over an employee’s work. The principal controls the details of the work and directs and supervises the employee as they perform them.

Vicarious Liability Case Study: The Exxon Valdez Spill

The aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill provides a real-world example of vicarious liability. This example involves a company being held liable when their employees caused an accident.

The Exxon Valdez supertanker crashed into a reef off the Alaskan coast on March 24, 1989. This allowed 11 million gallons of crude oil to spill into the Prince William Sound.

The tanker’s captain was intoxicated at the time of the crash. He chose to leave the bridge and “do paperwork” rather than monitor the tanker’s path as it traveled through dangerous waters. This prevented him from realizing the tanker was off-course.

Following the accident, both the tanker’s captain and ExxonMobil were the targets of numerous civil lawsuits. ExxonMobil was also fined millions of dollars and paid billions to fund cleanup efforts.

It was revealed that ExxonMobil had been overworking its employees. They were thus fatigued and unable to notice that the tanker was nearing a reef. Fatigue may have also caused the captain to overdrink. Some argued that ExxonMobil’s navigation practices contributed to the accident as well. These were among the many reasons ExxonMobil was deemed vicariously liable after the spill.

Vicarious Liability: The Role of Personal Injury Attorneys

It’s not always clear when the supervisor of a negligent party should be considered vicariously liable after an accident. That’s why it’s wise to consult our personal injury attorneys at Catania & Catania, P.A. after being injured or losing a loved one due to someone else’s negligence. Our legal team can gather evidence of vicarious liability and identify all parties responsible for your losses. To learn more, contact our Tampa law office online or call us at (813) 222-8545 to discuss your case.