Under the respondeat superior legal theory, an employer can be held liable for his employees’ acts that occur within his scope of employment. This means that a truck company, for example, may be held responsible for an accident caused by one its drivers who was speeding or intoxicated while driving his route. This doctrine can be complicated when questions arise as to whether or not the employee was within the scope of his employment, or whether the person who caused the injurious accident was in fact an employee.
To determine scope of employment, one must look to what the employer pays the employee to do and what, exactly, the employee was doing when the accident occured. If a truck driver deviated from his route to go to a bar, for example, then it will likely be determined the driver was engaged in frolic for his own benefit and therefore was not within the scope of his employment. This means if an accident occurs while that truck driver is on his way to the bar, then the truck company will not be held liable. If, on the other hand, the truck driver had to deviate from his standard route because of a flooded road, then the detour is still considered to be to the employer’s benefit and within his scope of employment. An accident that occurs while on detour will still be imputed to the truck company.
A recently decided case by Court of Appeal for the First Circuit helps illustrate issues of determining the employee/employer relationship. The importance of this aspect is if the party responsible for the accident is found to be an independent contractor rather than an employee, liability cannot be placed on the employer. So, in the case heard on appeal by the First Circuit, a woman who was injured by the negligent driving of a delivery van driver sought to join the subcontracting broker and the delivery service that hired the individuals responsible for the accident. To determine whether an independent contractor relationship existed, the court looked to case law and the facts before it.