Are Employers Responsible for Employees' Negligence?

Imagine a scenario in which you were injured at work because of a coworker's negligence. Perhaps you were riding in a vehicle with a coworker when they failed to stop at a red light and you suffered injuries during the car crash. Accidents like this happen all the time and, too often, the injured worker is unsure about his or her legal rights.

For many of us, our first instinct is that our employer will take care of us.

In reality, this is usually not the case, and we find ourselves in situations where we must understand liability (legal responsibility) for the accident and our resulting injuries. There are many situations in which an employer may or may not be held responsible for the bad actions of an employee and, in this blog, we will explore the differences between them.

Can Your Employer Be Held Liable For The Actions Of Your Co-Worker?

The short answer is "yes." The relevant legal theory is known as respondeat superior, which is Latin for “Let the superior answer.” This is also known as vicarious liability. In layman's terms, what this means is that if an employee is acting within the scope of the employer, the employer must assume all risk and liability for the employee's actions. For example, if an employee injures another employee in a car accident, the employer will be held responsible so long as the employee who was driving the vehicle was doing so for a task related to the job. However, if it is determined that the employee who was driving the car was doing so outside of the normal scope of the job, the employer may not be held responsible.

Below are a couple examples that will help illustrate the difference:

  • Two service technicians are traveling in a company car from one company site to another company site to perform general maintenance on the company's equipment. En route, the driver of the company vehicle causes an accident and the passenger is injured. In this scenario, because the driver and the passenger were acting in the interest of the employer, the employer can be held liable for the driver's negligence.
  • Two co-workers carpool to a diner on their lunch break. On the way to the diner, the driver rear-ends another vehicle and causes a neck injury to the passenger. Because this accident occurred on their personal time and the co-workers were not acting on behalf of their employer, the employer cannot be held liable for the passenger's neck injury.

The important difference between the two scenarios is the intent, or whether or not the employee was acting on behalf of their employer at the time of the incident. But it’s not only the intent that matters. A different legal theory can apply as well: careless hiring.

Negligent Hiring Practices

Employers can always be held liable for the actions of its employees that fall under the scope of the employer. However, in some instances, an employer can also be held liable for employee's actions that are beyond the scope of the employer. If an employee injures another party and it can be shown that the employer could have or should have foreseen the incident during its hiring process, the employer may be held liable for negligent hiring practices. Generally, these types of injuries occur from an employee who has committed a criminal act. For example, if an employer failed to perform a thorough background check or overlooked a particular employee's criminal history and that employee assaulted a co-worker or customer, the employer could be held liable for negligent hiring practices.

Should the company be found to have failed in taking this reasonable care in its hiring process, also known as negligent hiring, or keeping on an employee despite learning about any potential threat they may pose (negligent retention), they can become the responsible party for anything the dangerous employee may act upon while on the job, even if its not directly related to their position or the company’s industry.

Workers’ Compensation & Respondeat Superior

In many cases, should an employee be injured by a coworker while on the job, they can file a workers’ compensation claim in place of filing a lawsuit against the company. Similar to respondeat superior, if the employee was acting within the scope of employment when the accident occurred, workers’ compensation can apply, allowing the claim to cover lost wages and medical expenses rather than the company.

An additional lawsuit may be possible even if the injured employee has filed for workers’ compensation, however. If their injuries were caused by the company’s intentional misconduct, the injured worker can sue the company on top of their workers’ comp claim.

Independent Contractors & Vicarious Liability

Typically, an employer cannot be held responsible for an independent contractor’s actions because they are not legally considered an employee of the hiring company.

The only situation in which an employee might be able to sue their employer for an independent contractor’s torts is if the employer owes them a non-delegable duty of care. In this case, the bad actor is a smaller part of the conversation because the employer has a duty to see that reasonable care is taken for their employer regardless of who hurt who. As its name implies, a non-delegable duty is one that cannot be delegated, or passed on, to another party. An employer with a non-delegable duty of care must exercise reasonable care in order to fulfill their expectations.

Examples of non-delegable duties include:

  • Maintaining a safe work environment
  • Premises liability obligations

Maintaining a Safe Work Environment

In the end, legal theories such as respondeat superior and negligent hiring/retention are upheld in order to keep employees safe in the workplace. Employers must allow for the reasonable expectation of a safe work environment no matter the industry by not only training their employees and providing them with the proper safety equipment but also by taking special care in the hiring process.

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