what is vicarious liabilityMost people will be familiar with some aspects of vicarious liability and are naturally accepting of some of the basic effects of the principle but what is vicarious liability and what effect can it have upon the legal liabilities of the individual, businesses and organisations.

Vicarious liability exists when one person or organisation is held legally responsible for the acts or omissions of another person or party.

This is most commonly found within the business and commercial environment when things although previous unsuccessful attempts have been made in the UK to place the responsibility for the actions of minors upon the parents.

In the business and commercial world the responsibility of employers for the actions of their employees is widely understood but perhaps many are unaware of the breadth and depth of the responsibility.

Certainly most would appreciate that the responsibility for  certain acts or omissions by an employee would fall upon the employer such as the failure to clean up a spillage in a shop and someone slips and is injured. The naturally assumption here is that the shop owner is responsible not the employee who did not clean the spillage. Similarly an employee of a roofing company inadvertently sets fire to the building, again the employer bears responsibility. The responsibility is not limited to sole acts that cause injury or damage for instance an insurance broker fails to submit the correct information on behalf of a client, the responsibility for the failure will fall with the employer not the individual who made the error.

Yet vicarious liability attaches in a much broader sense than simple mistakes as described above and the employer may not always be the person ultimately responsible.

“Employers” and others can be held responsible for a wide range of acts committed during the course of their employment including;

  • bullying
  • harassment
  • violent conduct
  • discrimination
  • libel and slander
  • breach of copyright

The key test in many cases would be whether the employee was acting in a personal capacity at the time the act was committed or whether they were acting in their capacity as an employee. This can be very difficult to determine is certain circumstances and the employer can often face legal action in respect of these acts even after and employee has left.

In cases of “bad behavior”  such as bullying, harassment and the like the employer can seek to mitigate the risks of being held vicariously liable for such acts by undertaking and being able to demonstrate that appropriate training and policies exist to create a framework that minimizes the risk of such incidents but in truth this will only serve to reduce the risk not eliminate them completely.

It may not always be the employer that is vicariously liable for the acts of an employee this can often be passed upwards from sub-contractor to main contractor.

It is also true that and employer or organisation may be held vicariously liable for acts or omissions of other parties, such as clients, guests or visitors, if they are deemed to under the control of the employer. Really? Start to think about the behavior of people at social functions and corporate entertainments, it’s not a huge leap! Then look at the responsibilities of the organiser of such a function. It can start to get quite messy very quickly!


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