What is vicarious liability? Definition and Examples – Forbes Advisor

Vicarious liability, or imputed liability, is a legal rule that holds a person or company liable for acts committed by others or their employees. Generally, this applies to those who control those who cause harm to victims.

For example, a company (called the principal) controls its employees. So if an employee (called the agent) injures someone on the job, vicarious liability rules could apply to hold the business liable.

Vicarious liability gives victims more potential defendants in a personal injury case. In many situations, plaintiffs will pursue action against the person directly responsible for harming them and others who are vicariously liable for the losses suffered.

Vicarious Liability vs Strict Liability

It is important to understand how vicarious liability works, as it is different from a typical personal injury claim. In a typical tort case, a plaintiff must prove certain things to be entitled to compensation. Applicants must prove:

  • Defendant(s) owed a duty of care (act reasonably)
  • The defendant(s) breached this duty (usually by acting negligently or not exercising the care that a reasonably prudent person in the same situation would have exercised)
  • The dereliction of duty was the direct or immediate cause of the injury
  • The plaintiff suffered losses for which he must be compensated

However, plaintiffs do not always have to prove negligence. An exception is when the strict liability doctrine applies. Strict liability requires that defendants be held liable for damages, whether they were negligent or acted intentionally. If they did something, they are held responsible for it, regardless of the circumstances.

For example, strict liability applies to speeding. Even if a driver had no intention of accelerating or actually knew they were going too fast, if they exceed the limit while driving, they are responsible for doing so.

Vicarious liability is a type of strict liability. Those sued under this legal doctrine may be liable for losses even without negligence. For example, if a server in a restaurant drops a pot of hot coffee on you and burns you, the restaurant is responsible for the actions of the server. The restaurant is the principal who controls the server (the agent) and is responsible for his actions at work, even if the restaurant itself has done nothing negligent.