Sometimes, people working on the clock do make mistakes. A negligent omission, or an improper turn of the wheel of a car can mean an accident, and cause harm to someone else. An employee may not be able to afford a judgment assessed against them – but an employer usually can. In South Carolina, as in many other states, there exists a doctrine called vicarious liability, which – if applicable – is used to hold employers liable for the torts of their employees. It can take a knowledgeable attorney to know when this is applicable and how to proceed.
Actual vs. Legal Liability
At common law, vicarious liability (also referred to as respondeat superior) is defined as the liability of the employer for the torts of their employees, if the tortious actions were committed within the scope of employment. This is roughly the same definition used in South Carolina, though it was codified into law by such decisions as Wade v. Berkeley County (1998) or Anderson v. West (1978). Both of those decisions clarified fine points that are still important today.
One of the major lessons to take away from the jurisprudence in this area is that generally, vicarious liability does not mean that the employer has committed any tortious conduct of its own; merely that the law makes it responsible for its employees. However, this liability only extends to employees – not to independent contractors or those workers in any other status.
The “Scope of Employment”
The crux of any personal injury claim based on respondeat superior is whether or not an employee was acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the tort. The main method that South Carolina courts usually employ when trying to find out whether an employee was in fact acting on behalf of their employer is referred to as the “motive” or “purpose” test. If it can be reasonably assumed that the employee’s main motive in acting was to further their employer’s interests, then they were acting in the scope of employment at that time.
In rare circumstances, it is possible for an employer to be held liable for torts employees commit outside the scope of employment, but it is unusual. The Restatement of Agency holds that if an agent acts with “apparent authority” or purports to act on behalf of the principal (their employer), and a reasonable person would believe that they in fact had that authority, the employer may wind up on the proverbial hook. However, South Carolina law does generally hold that if an employee commits a tort while their primary purpose was not acting in their employer’s interest, they will be held to have ‘effected an independent purpose,’ leaving their employer free of liability.
Seek Experienced Legal Counsel
If someone just trying to do their job has injured you, they are often judgment-proof, but their employer may not be. The knowledgeable North Charleston personal injury attorneys at Callihan & Syracuse are happy to help guide you through the personal injury process, while working toward the optimal result for you and your family. Contact our offices today for a free consultation.