Vicarious Liability Explained

If you’re the victim of an accident, you may want to learn all that you can about the law and the legal road ahead. One of the legal terms that you may encounter is vicarious liability. If it applies in your case, it can help get you the compensation that you may deserve. Our Colorado personal injury attorneys explain vicarious liability.

What Is Vicarious Liability?

Vicarious liability is the legal idea that one person or entity is responsible for the actions of another. In certain circumstances, a person may be legally required to pay damages for something that someone else did. Vicarious liability depends on the relationship between the two parties. Someone must be personally responsible for a tort against the victim before vicarious liability can extend to a third party.

Understanding Vicarious Liability

To understand vicarious liability, it is helpful to think about the word vicarious. The dictionary defines vicarious as being imagined or experienced through another person. It’s something done through another person or done indirectly.

Maybe you’ve heard the term “living vicariously.” One person talks about something they’ve done or about to do, and the second person says, “I’m living vicariously through you.” The second person is just saying they’re going to enjoy the experience through the lens of the one who gets to do it.

Similarly, legal liability can be vicarious. One person may be legally liable for something that another person does. The party who is ultimately responsible to the victim may not have done anything wrong at all. They may simply be standing in the shoes of the responsible party because the law allows the victim to make the connection with vicarious liability.

What Is an Example of Vicarious Liability?

One typical example of vicarious liability is employer liability for the actions of an employee. When an employee acts in the course and scope of their employment, the employer is generally responsible for what they do. It doesn’t matter if the employer acts with the utmost care in hiring and training the employee—vicarious liability means that they are responsible for what the employee does.

For example, a trucking company hires a driver. They tell the driver to get plenty of rest before beginning a shift. However, the truck driver hasn’t slept well and is ill. He decides to drive anyway because he wants to earn overtime. The driver fails to stop at a traffic light, and an accident results. The trucking company is responsible to victims because of the employee’s negligence in driving while tired and sick.

To prove vicarious liability in this example, the victim must show:

  1. The relationship of control between the employer and the actions of the employee
  2. A tort committed by the employee
  3. That the employee was acting in the course and scope of employment at the time of the tort

There are some exceptions to employer vicarious liability.

Vicarious Liability for Minor Drivers in Colorado

In Colorado, a parent can be liable for the actions of a child driver. When a parent takes a child to get a driver’s license, they must sign that they are responsible for what the child does behind the wheel. In Colorado, vicarious liability doesn’t necessarily extend to anyone and everyone that you choose to let use your vehicle. However, when a parent allows a minor to drive, they may be legally responsible if the minor acts negligently and causes an accident.

What Is the Purpose of Vicarious Liability?

The purpose of vicarious liability is to allow the victim to fairly access the resources that they need when they are hurt in an accident. When the victim gets injured because of the actions of someone else, it’s only fair that the people responsible pay for the damages.

When an agency relationship exists, and one person is acting at the request of another, it’s most fair to require the person in control to pay for the victim’s damages rather than expect the victim to suffer without relief. A third party may have insurance policies or a greater ability to pay damages than the tortfeasor themselves, allowing the victim to recover the compensation they deserve.

Attorneys for Personal Injury Claims Involving Vicarious Liability

Are you the victim of a personal injury accident? Are you wondering how vicarious liability may impact your claim? We’d be happy to meet with you, answer your questions, and give you a personalized assessment of your case. Contact us today.

Note for Practitioners: Vicarious Liability in Colorado and the Interplay of Negligent Hiring

As a legal practitioner pursuing a case involving negligent hiring, it’s essential to understand that vicarious liability may usurp a tort claim based on negligent hiring and entrustment. In turn, it may prohibit the victim from claiming exemplary damages against the employer. If the defendant admits vicarious liability, Colorado law does not allow the pursuit of exemplary damages against the employer. They may still be available against the employee.

In the In re Ferrer (2017 CO 14 No. 15SA340) case [1], the court adopted the legal reasoning of McHaffie v. Bunch, 891 SW2d 822 (Mo. 1995) [2] to state that the employee’s admission of vicarious liability bars direct negligence claims. In the case, a taxi driver was allegedly speeding and talking on his cell phone. He struck the victim. The victim sought to hold the taxi company liable through negligent hiring and supervision, claiming both general and exemplary damages. 

The defense admitted vicarious liability but fought the exemplary damages claims. The court said that negligent hiring and supervision is merely an alternative legal theory for the same conduct to which vicarious liability applies. In Colorado, exemplary damages may not be in the initial claim for relief. If the defense admits vicarious liability, there can be no freestanding claim for exemplary damages because the employer could not have acted intentionally.

As a legal practitioner, be prepared to encounter this interplay between vicarious liability and other negligence theories. Be ready to tailor both your pleadings and theories of relief in the most appropriate manner, given Colorado’s adoption of McHaffie and its impact on exemplary damages in vicarious liability cases.

Legal References:

[1] In re Ferrer, 2017 CO 14

[2] McHaffie v. Bunch, 891 S.W.2d 822 (Mo. 1995)

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