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VICARIOUS LIABILITY IN CALIFORNIA — SUING AN EMPLOYER


Nov 21, 2017

In California, as in other states, if you have been injured in an accident due to the negligence of a person who was acting within the course and scope of his or her employment at the time of the accident, you may be entitled to sue and be compensated by that person’s employer.  This is known as the doctrine of vicarious liability, which makes an employer automatically liable for employees’ negligence.  The doctrine of vicarious liability provides injured plaintiffs with another source of recovery.  

Foundations of Vicarious Liability

California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) 3700 provides a clear and succinct explanation of the basics of vicarious liability.  According to CACI 3700, an employer may be held liable if the plaintiff can show that:

  • The employee caused the harm at-issue
  • The employee was acting within the course and scope of their employment

The doctrine of vicarious liability — also known as respondeat superior — was established to redistribute the risk of harmful conduct (and the consequences thereof) to the employer.  There are a number of reasons why it makes sense from a public policy perspective to redistribute risk to the employers.

  • Employers are incentivized to make reasonable efforts to properly train their employees to avoid causing harm.
  • Employers are more financially able to absorb the costs, and may simply consider the losses as a “cost of doing business.”
  • Employees are still individually liable, giving the plaintiff an important strategic choice.

Bear in mind that a California employee is still liable for the harm they cause to you, even if their employer could be exposed to vicarious liability, too.  By the same token, however, if your injury claim would fail against the employee, then it will similarly fail against the employer.

Suppose, for example, that you are injured in a car accident by a driver who was in the middle of delivering food for a restaurant at the time of the accident.  The driver is an employee (or agent) of the restaurant, and injured you while acting within the scope of their employment.  As such, you would likely have a claim against both the employee and the employer pursuant to the vicarious liability doctrine.

Critically, if your claim would fail against the driver-employee for any reason — perhaps you did not actually suffer injuries during the accident, or perhaps the driver was not negligent at all — then you cannot recover against either the employee or the employer.

Scope of Employment

As an injured plaintiff, one of the key aspects of litigating a successful vicarious liability claim is proving that the employee was acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the accident.  What qualifies as within the scope of one’s employment?

CACI 3720 provides some guidance.

An employee’s conduct will be deemed within the scope of employment if:

  • it is reasonably related to the sort of work tasks for which the employee was hired
  • it is reasonably foreseeable given the nature of the employee’s work responsibilities

The “scope of employment” issue is a question of fact and, as such, relies heavily on the particular circumstances of your case and the ability of your attorney to persuasively argue the facts in your favor.

For example, imagine that you are injured in a car accident by a secretary who was driving to a local coffee shop to pick up coffee for their office.  A number of factors would help you prove that the secretary was acting within the scope of their employment: if the secretary was doing so during work hours, if picking up coffee, food, and other snacks for the office was one of the formal or informal job requirements for the secretary, and more.

If you have been injured due to the fault of an employee, California law may entitle you to sue the employer for damages as compensation for your injuries.  Successful litigation of injury claims — particularly those where the employer may be held vicariously liable — requires skillful execution.  It’s important that you work with a personal injury attorney who is familiar with litigating claims involving vicarious liability, and who knows how to effectively navigate the difficulties associated with such litigation.

Call West Coast Trial Lawyers at (888) 888-9285 to schedule a free consultation with an experienced Los Angeles personal injury lawyer today.