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Vicarious Liability

15 January, 2016 - 09:31

Liability for negligent acts does not always end with the one who was negligent. Under certain circumstances, the liability is imputed to others. For example, an employer is responsible for the negligence of his employees if they were acting in the scope of employment. This rule of vicarious liability is often calledrespondeat superior, meaning that the higher authority must respond to claims brought against one of its agents. Respondeat superior is not limited to the employment relationship but extends to a number of other agency relationships as well.

Legislatures in many states have enacted laws that make people vicariously liable for acts of certain people with whom they have a relationship, though not necessarily one of agency. It is common, for example, for the owner of an automobile to be liable for the negligence of one to whom the owner lends the car. So-called dram shop statutes place liability on bar and tavern owners and others who serve too much alcohol to one who, in an intoxicated state, later causes injury to others. In these situations, although the injurious act of the drinker stemmed from negligence, the one whom the law holds vicariously liable (the bartender) is not himself necessarily negligent—the law is holding him strictly liable, and to this concept we now turn.


The most common tort claim is based on the negligence of the defendant. In each negligence claim, the plaintiff must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) the defendant had a duty of due care, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) that the breach of duty both actually and approximately has caused harm to the plaintiff, and (4) that the harm is measurable in money damages.

It is also possible for the negligence of one person to be imputed to another, as in the case of respondeat superior, or in the case of someone who loans his automobile to another driver who is negligent and causes injury. There are many excuses (defenses) to claims of negligence, including assumption of risk and comparative negligence. In those few jurisdictions where contributory negligence has not been modified to comparative negligence, plaintiffs whose negligence contributes to their own injuries will be barred from any recovery.


  1. Explain the difference between comparative negligence and contributory negligence.
  2. How is actual cause different from probable cause?
  3. What is an example of assumption of risk?
  4. How does res ipsa loquitur help a plaintiff establish a case of negligence?