A recent case decided by the Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit of Louisiana demonstrates the legal principle of respondeat superior. In Cote v. City of Shreveport, the plaintiff’s house was broken into and she and her daughter were held captive at knifepoint by the intruder. The intruder had apparently become familiar with Cote’s house through his employment with the city’s water department. Based on this fact, Cote brought suit against the City of Shreveport under the theory of respondeat superior.
Respondeat superior is a common law doctrine that makes an employer liable for the actions of an employee when those actions take place within the scope of employment. The policy behind this doctrine lies in the notion that in an employment relationship, the principle or employer has the ability to control his agent or employee. This control includes which employees to hire as well as the time, space, and method in which work is conducted. Since the employer retains so much control, it only seems fair to hold it responsible when these choices result in injury.
Another policy reason for permitting respondeat superior claims is to allow claimants to pursue a responsible party that has the means to compensate the injured. While the employee him or herself may be responsible, the victim of a tort may not be able to recover suitable compensation for an injury from this individual. The employer, on the other hand, has a greater pool of resources to draw from to settle the wrong. This justification not only allows injured parties to be remunerated properly, but also places an additional financial incentive on employers to take care when hiring and implementing work practices.
In most of these respondeat superior claims, the outcome turns on whether or not the employee was within the scope of his or her employment when the injury occurred. In the Cote case, for example, the employee broke into Cote’s home well after midnight, a time during which the employee was no longer acting on behalf of his employer. Thus, in this case the individual was found to be acting outside his scope of employment and, as a result, the city was not found liable for his actions.
One rule of thumb with regards to scope of employment is to ask whether or not the injury occurred during an act that is necessary or might be reasonably expected to complete an employer assigned task. Minor detours and delays from the assigned task, such as going to the bathroom, are typically viewed as being within the scope of employment. On the other hand, frolic, or major detours that are solely for the benefit of the employee, are seen to be outside the scope of employment and will not cause an employer to be held liable. If an injury is found to have occurred within the scope of employment, the employer may be held liable for the employee’s actions even if such actions were reckless, accidental, or intentional.
When applying these standards to the Cote case, the court made it clear that the employer was outside his scope of employment. The employee had no reason to be at Cote’s house at that time of night and was not even on the clock. Cote also claimed that she had complained about the employee’s prior inappropriate actions towards her and the city failed to take action. However, the court found no such complaint on the record. Therefore, the city could not be held liable for retaining the employee, as they could not have been considered to have been on notice.
If you have been injured by someone who was working at the time, you may be able to bring suit against both the employee and the employer. However, several difficult questions, including those involving scope of employment, require careful consideration. These analyses are best suited for an experienced, practicing attorney.
If you have been injured, please contact the Berniard Law Firm.