Legal Dictionary

vicarious liability

Legal Definition of vicarious liability


  1. When a person is held responsible for the tort of another even though the person being held responsible may not have done anything wrong. This is often the case with employers who are held vicariously liable for the damages caused by their employees.

Related terms

Definition of vicarious liability


vicarious liability (uncountable)

  1. The legal responsibility of the superior for the acts of their subordinate.

Further reading

Vicarious liability is a form of strict, secondary liability that arises under the common law doctrine of agency - respondeat superior - the responsibility of the superior for the acts of their subordinate, or, in a broader sense, the responsibility of any third party that had the "right, ability or duty to control" the activities of a violator. It can be distinguished from contributory liability, another form of secondary liability, which is rooted in the tort theory of enterprise liability.

Employers' liability

Employers are vicariously liable, under the respondeat superior doctrine, for negligent acts or omissions by their employees in the course of employment (sometimes referred to as 'scope of employment'). For an act to be considered within the course of employment it must either be authorised or be so connected with an authorised act that it can be considered a mode, though an improper mode, of performing it.

Courts sometimes distinguish between an employee's "detour" or "frolic". For instance, an employer will be held liable if it is shown that the employee had gone on a mere detour in carrying out their duties, whereas an employee acting in his or her own right rather than on the employer's business is undertaking a "frolic" and will not subject the employer to liability.

Principals' liability

The owner of an automobile can be held vicariously liable for negligence committed by a person to whom the car has been loaned, as if the owner was a principal and the driver his or her agent, if the driver is using the car primarily for the purpose of performing a task for the owner. Courts have been reluctant to extend this liability to the owners of other kinds of chattel. For example, the owner of a plane will not be vicariously liable for the actions of a pilot to whom he or she has lent it to perform the owner's purpose. In the United States, vicarious liability for automobiles has since been outlawed with respect to car leasing and rental in all 50 states.

Parental liability

In the United States, the question of parental responsibility generally and the issue of parental vicarious liability for the torts of their children is evolving. What is clear is that parents can be held liable for their own negligent acts, such as failure to supervise a child, or failure to keep a dangerous instrument such as a handgun outside the reach of their children.

Employers' indemnity

The principle of vicarious liability can also be bypassed with a legal instrument known as Employers' indemnity. When an employer is successfully sued, they have the option of suing the tortfeasor for an indemnity to recover the damages back. This principle is greatly criticised when used in the case of Lister v Romford Ice Cold Storage.

Vicarious liability in English law

Vicarious liability in English law is a doctrine of English tort law that imposes strict liability on employers for the wrongdoings of their employees. Generally, an employer will be held liable for any tort committed while an employee is conducting their duties. This liability has expanded in recent years following the decision in Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd to better cover intentional torts, such as sexual assault and deceit. Historically, it was held that most intentional wrongdoings were not in the course of ordinary employment, but recent case law suggests that where an action is closely connected with an employee's duties, an employer can be found vicariously liable.

Justification for such wide recovery has been made in several areas. The first is that, as is common in tort law, policy reasons should allow those injured to have means of compensation. Employers generally have larger assets, and greater means with which to offset any losses (deep pocket compensation) Secondly, it is under the instruction of an employer by which a tort is committed; the employer can be seen to gain from the duties of their employees, and thus must bear the consequences of any wrongdoings committed by them. Lastly, it has been justified as a way to reduce the taking of risks by employers, and to ensure adequate precautions are taken in conducting business.

Developments in establishing liability

An employer is strictly liable for torts committed by those under his command, when they are found to be his employees. To this end, the courts must find a sufficient relationship to this effect, where issues of vicarious liability are raised. It has been stated judicially that no one test can adequately cover all types and instances of employment; thus, generally, the tests used and ultimate determination rest upon the individual aspects of each case, looking at all the factors as a whole. For example, it need not matter that an employer classifies a relationship as one of independent contractor, if all the other factors represent a relationship of employee.


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


1.     lex fori
2.     lex situs
3.     lex causae
4.     conclusive presumption
5.     AORO
6.     landed property
7.     lex domicilii
8.     Miranda warning
9.     lex loci delicti commissi
10.     Clayton's Case