Legal Dictionary

respondeat superior

Legal Definition of respondeat superior

Related terms

Definition of respondeat superior


respondeat superior (uncountable)

  1. (law) A legal doctrine which holds that an employer, officer, manager, supervisor, or other individual or group superior to an employee or subordinate may be legally liable for the acts of that employee or subordinate.

Further reading

Respondeat superior (Latin: "let the master answer"; plural: respondeant superiores) is a legal doctrine which states that, in many circumstances, an employer is responsible for the actions of employees performed within the course of their employment. This rule is also called the "Master-Servant Rule", recognized in both common law and civil law jurisdictions.

In a broader scope, respondeat superior is based upon the concept of vicarious liability.

In common law

When applied to physical torts an employer/employee relationship must be established (meaning that no vicarious liability is established for work performed as an independent contractor) and the act must be committed within the scope of employment (i.e. substantially within time and geographical limits, job description and at least with partial intent to further employer's business).

Historically, this doctrine was applied in master/servant or employer/employee relationships. If the employee or servant committed a civil wrong against a third party, the master or employer could be liable for the acts of their servant or employee when those acts were committed within the scope of the relationship. The third party could proceed against both the servant/employee and master/employer. The action against the servant/employee would be based upon the direct responsibility of the servant/employee for his conduct. The action against the master/employer is based upon the theory of vicarious liability, by which one party can be held liable for the acts of another.

Employer/employee relationships are the most common area wherein respondeat superior is applied, but often the doctrine is used in the agency relationship. In this, the principal becomes liable for the actions of the agent, even if the principal did not directly commit the act. There are three considerations generally:

  1. Was the act committed within the time and space limits of the agency?
  2. Was the offense incidental to, or of the same general nature as, the responsibilities the agent is authorized to perform?
  3. Was the agent motivated to any degree to benefit the principal by committing the act?

The degree to which these are answered in the affirmative will dictate the degree to which the doctrine can be applied.

Common law distinguishes between civil and criminal forms of respondeat superior.

In International Law

At issue in the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal following the Allied occupation of Nazi Germany after World War II was a question concerning principles closely related to respondeat superior, which came to be known by the term command responsibility. The Nuremberg trials established that persons cannot use the defense that they were only following the orders of their superiors, if that order violates international norms but especially that superiors that ordered, or "should have known," of such violations yet failed to intervene are also criminally liable.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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