While the use of Latin has become a dying language, there are few words and phrases that have stood the test of time and made their way into common vernacular. These words are often associated with legal concepts that remain in full force long after their first utterance. One of the more popular Latin phrases that has a legal connotation is respondeat superior. The literal translation of this phrase is, “let the master answer.” Respondeat Superior is legal term of art that generally means that an employer should be responsible for the acts of his or her employee. This concept arises mostly in the world of agency and tort law.
Massachusetts courts have held that, “[C]onduct of an agent is within the scope of employment if it is of the kind he is employed to perform …; if it occurs substantially within the authorized time and space limits …; and if it is motivated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the employer…. The fact that the predominant motive of the agent is to benefit himself does not prevent the act from coming within the scope of employment as long as the act is otherwise within the purview of his authority.” Wang Labs., Inc. v. Business Incentives, Inc., 398 Mass. 854, 859–860, 501 N.E.2d 1163 (1986).
Respondeat Superior is most often used when an injured person seeks to recover damages for the negligence of an employee from the employer. The injured party must first prove that he or she sustained personal injury or property damage due to negligence, that the tortfeasor was an actual employee of the defendant-employer, and that the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment at the time of the injury.
The third element above, whether a purported employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment at the time of the injury, is often the most contested issue an individual faces when trying to hold an employer liable for the employee’s conduct. For instance, if John Doe owns a restaurant and hires Jane Doe to be his hostess, if Jane Doe uses force or causes injury to a customer who decides to sue, John Doe will argue that force was not part of Jane Doe’s employment. As she was not authorized to use force, it cannot be said she was “acting within the scope of her employment” at the time of the injury. There will be no recovery for the plaintiff in this scenario. However, if John Doe owned a bar and hired Jane Doe to be his bouncer, any allegations of excessive force may actually hold weight as force may be considered part of her employment. In this scenario, the plaintiff may recover.
Holding an employer liable for the actions of his or her employee carries certain advantages. Typically, an employer has “deeper pockets” than its employees. This will be especially relevant if the damages sought far exceed what the employee has. Additionally, employers normally carry insurance policies that have proceeds that may be attained in a law suit. In a case where a plaintiff seeks to hold an employer liable under the theory of respondeat superior- discovery may become crucial. It will be necessary to get copies of job descriptions, schedules, policies, procedures, and to depose the employees of an organization to truly flesh out the nature and characteristics of a particular individuals role at the defendant-company.
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