Lawyers often use strange sounding or unknown words and phrases. 

The intent of this blog post is to define and explain one of those terms, “respondeat superior,” so that you are in a better position to understand the legal theories applicable to or available in your case.

Respondeat superior” is a phrase from the Latin, meaning “let the master answer.”[1]  At its most basic, it is a legal doctrine which allows an injured person to hold the employer liable for the bad acts of the employee.

For example, let us say that you are stopped at a stoplight when a certain “package delivery truck” fails to stop and slams into the back of your car.  Of course, you can sue the person that was actually driving the delivery truck for the damage to your car and your injuries.  But, the doctrine of respondeat superior also allows you to go even further and also sue the package delivery company.

One key benefit to being able to sue the employer/company is that often times the employee will not have the means to pay for what they did.  Even if you get a judgment against the bad driver, for example, he/she might not have any money to pay to repair your car and he/she might even file bankruptcy.  Such a judgment that you are unable to collect is worth no more than the paper it is written on.  But, if you can also reach the employer, the employer will be more likely to have the resources to pay for the judgment.

In order to hold the employer responsible, the injured party must prove that the conduct of the employee was “within the scope of employment.”[2]  In other words, the employee must be doing what he was employed to do or at the request of the employer.[3]  At first thought, you might think this requirement would prevent an injured party from ever suing the employer since it is obviously not part of the employee’s job to “get into a car accident” (for example) and the employer hopefully didn’t ask the employee to crash into your car.  However, this requirement is really designed to prevent an injured party from suing “Ma’s Country Store,” for example, when one of its cashiers gets into a bar fight early one Sunday morning.

In our early car accident example, the driver was within the scope of his employment because it was his job to drive around town and deliver packages.  It was during the course of his job (while he was driving to deliver packages) that he crashed into your vehicle and caused the damage.  As a result, the doctrine of respondeat superior would allow you, the injury party, to sue the package delivery company in addition to suing the bad driver. 

In our example of the bar fight, on the other hand, the cashier was not in the bar for anything related to the country store.  It happened while the cashier was off-duty and away from work.  I don’t think anyone would call it a stretch to say that the bar fight was completely unrelated to the cashier’s employment.  If instead “Ma’s Country Store” had asked the cashier to go to that bar and “rough you up” so the store could collect a debt, then respondeat superior would allow the injured person to sue the country store.

The doctrine of respondeat superior can be useful in making sure you are actually able to recover when you obtain a judgment, and a skilled trial attorney can help you know whether it is applicable in your particular circumstances.  If you have been injured, call the experienced trial attorneys at Goosmann Law Firm, PLC, and we can help assess your case and determine who can be held responsible for your damages. For more information on legal theory, stop in to our Sioux City law firm, Sioux Falls law firm, or Omaha law firm to talk to one of our attorneys or visit our Trial Law Review blog!


[2] Strong v. K & K Investments, Inc., 216 Neb. 370, 343 N.W.2d 912 (1984). 

[3] Id.


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