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Vicarious Liability

19 January, 2016 - 16:39

But the principle of liability for one’s agent is much broader, extending to acts of which the principal had no knowledge, that he had no intention to commit nor involvement in, and that he may in fact have expressly prohibited the agent from engaging in. This is the principle of respondeat superior (“let the master answer”) or the master-servant doctrine, which imposes on the principal vicarious liability (vicarious means “indirectly, as, by, or through a substitute”) under which the principal is responsible for acts committed by the agent within the scope of the employment (see Figure 21.2).

Figure 21.2 Principal’s Tort Liability 

The modern basis for vicarious liability is sometimes termed the “deep pocket” theory: the principal (usually a corporation) has deeper pockets than the agent, meaning that it has the wherewithal to pay for the injuries traceable one way or another to events it set in motion. A million-dollar industrial accident is within the means of a company or its insurer; it is usually not within the means of the agent—employee—who caused it.

The “deep pocket” of the defendant-company is not always very deep, however. For many small businesses, in fact, the principle of respondeat superior is one of life or death. One example was the closing in San Francisco of the much-beloved Larraburu Brothers Bakery—at the time, the world’s second largest sourdough bread maker. The bakery was held liable for $2 million in damages after one of its delivery trucks injured a six-year-old boy. The bakery’s insurance policy had a limit of $1.25 million, and the bakery could not absorb the excess. The Larraburus had no choice but to cease operations. (See

Respondeat superior raises three difficult questions: (1) What type of agents can create tort liability for the principal? (2) Is the principal liable for the agent’s intentional torts? (3) Was the agent acting within the scope of his employment? We will consider these questions in turn.