Attorneys often use various Latin phrases in their work. One of the most popular of those Latin phrases is “respondeat superior,” which literally means let the master answer. This phrase has nothing to do with slavery, even though any mention of “master” can hint at such an intention.
Respondeat superior is most often used by attorneys in analyzing employees’ mistakes, accidents or other mishaps that cause damage within the course of the employees’ work. In such situations, the employer is usually responsible to whomever is hurt or damaged. Essentially, an employee is the extension of the employer when the employee is acting for the employer.
For example, if a package delivery driver causes an accident while delivering a package for the driver’s employer, the employer is typically responsible for damages caused by that accident, as long as the employee was acting within the scope of the employee’s work.
If an employee causes an accident outside the employee’s scope of work, the employee himself or herself is typically responsible for damage caused by that accident. Suppose that the same package delivery driver decides to joyride around the community during a lunch break. And, during that lunch break, suppose the driver causes an accident. In that situation, the driver personally would more often be responsible for the accident.
Notably, if an employee intentionally causes damage, it is presumed that the employee’s actions are automatically outside the scope of the employee’s work. In other words, as a matter of law, usually no one is hired to intentionally cause damage to others.
It is crucial to note that the owner of the vehicle used in causing an accident almost never defines who has legal liability for an accident caused within the scope of work for a business. The only time that the owner of the vehicle usually becomes responsible (solely by being the owner) is when the owner of the vehicle used or caused someone else to use the vehicle when the owner knew or should have known that the vehicle was unsafe.
As a practical matter, in accidents, such as automobile crashes, the employee and employer are both named in the lawsuit, at least until it is clear and undisputed whether the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment.
Respondeat superior is a foundational concept for the liability protection provided by LLCs. A properly formed and managed LLC can have agents, employees, owners and others working for that LLC. As long as those people’s work is within the scope of proper LLC activities, if accidents are caused by those people, the LLC will usually be the responsible party.
Presume that one person owns a properly formed and managed LLC. That person may cause an accident while undertaking work for the LLC. In such an instance, the LLC, and not the person, would typically be liable for the accident, even though that same person is the sole owner of the LLC. This significant protection of personal assets depends upon proper LLC setup and management.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.