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What is Vicarious Liability?

In San Diego, businesses are liable for the acts of their employees when the employees are working. In general, employees are agents for their employers and all principals can be held liable for the acts or omissions of their agents when conducting the business of the principal.

What is Agency Under California Law?

You or your business have the ability to authorize another person (or business) to act on your behalf in his or her transactions with third persons. This relationship is called “agency.” The person or entity giving the authority is called the “principal” and the person or entity to whom authority is given is called the “agent.”

What is Vicarious Liability in San Diego?

The California legal doctrine of “vicarious liability” means that an employer/principal is legally responsible for harm caused by the negligent and/or wrongful conduct of employees/agents while said employees/agents are acting within the scope of their employment/authority. A common business example is where a business owns or leases a delivery truck and an employee is sent off to make a delivery. If the employee gets involved in an accident, then the employer is liable for any injury or damage caused by the employee. “Vicarious” is an old English word, deriving from Latin, meaning something that is suffered by one person as a substitute for another. In the case of the law of agency and employment law, the principal is suffering the liability of their agent for some act or omission of the agent that caused harm to a third party.

Note that it is important that the agent be acting “within the scope” of his or her employment. See, for example a Georgia case where it was held that “… where an employee takes a break for lunch and is not otherwise engaged in his employer’s business, the employee is on a purely personal mission.” Under such a circumstance, the employer is NOT vicariously liable if the employee has an accident on the way home to have lunch. See Gassaway v. Precon Corp., 280 Ga.App. 351 (2006).

For What can an Employer be Vicariously Liable?

Under California law, vicarious liability attaches to anything that the employee does as long as it relates to the employer’s business or affairs. The modern rule in California has moved away from concepts of loyalty and control to simple allocation of risks based on public policy. See Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. v. Department of Transportation, 220 Cal.App.4th 87 (2013) (“The modern justification for vicarious liability is a rule of policy, a deliberate allocation of a risk.”)

Thus, a principal/employer can be liable for the following acts by an employee/agent:

  • Negligence such as a car accident
  • Breach of contract
  • Fraud
  • Intentional torts like assault and battery during a labor dispute
  • Criminal acts such as theft of a competitor’s trade secrets
  • Trespass
  • Infringement of property rights

But, again, any such acts, including criminal acts, must connect somehow to the employee’s work. Thus, in the case of Perry v. County of Fresno, 215 Cal. App. 4th 94 (2013), the employer was NOT vicariously liable where a police officer unlawfully accessed computer records to carry out a personal vendetta against someone who had caused an automobile accident. Neither the accident nor the taking of information from the computer system were “within the scope of employment.”

Contact San Diego Corporation Law Today

If you would like more information about vicarious liability, about business contracts, business formation, and/or other aspects of business law, contact attorney Michael Leonard, Esq., of San Diego Corporate Law. Mr. Leonard has the experience and knowledge to help your business succeed. Mr. Leonard can be reached at (858) 483-9200 or via email.

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Schedule a Consultation: 858.483.9200