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An employee working at a restaurant fails to place a warning sign beside a spill. When a customer walks by, he slips and breaks his hip. Who is at fault?  

While it may be tempting to believe the employee is responsible for the outcome, most courts would agree the company is. In fact, being an employer comes with no small amount of risk.

In numerous instances, employers are held responsible for the actions of their employees.

Respondeat Superior

Respondeat superior translates roughly to “let the superior answer.” The Latin phrase refers to a legal policy that holds employers responsible for their employees’ actions.

However, the respondeat superior doctrine requires that the employee is acting within the “scope of his or her employment” when the negligence occurs. If the worker was beyond the scope of his or her employment, the company isn’t liable.

The Scope of Employment

The scope of employment refers to any reasonable actions taken by an employee to perform her job duties. Because the worker who forgot the warning sign was clocked in and executing daily duties at work, the corporation would be responsible for the customer’s broken hip.

The scope of employment, however, can also include activities beyond the workplace. Individuals driving company cars to undertake job duties, for example, typically fall under the scope of employment. However, someone who was using a company car for personal reasons would be responsible for an accident.

Careless Hiring and Retention

Apart from the respondeat superior doctrine, employers are also responsible for careless hiring and retention. Careless hiring occurs when a company fails to adequately ensure the hiree poses no threat to other workers.

This may occur if a business fails to perform a background check that would have demonstrated violent tendencies. An example would be if a nurse had a history of abusing patients but was hired by a hospital.

Similarly, careless retention occurs if a corporation continues to employ a worker illustrating violent tendencies. If an employee threatens another worker or engages in physical violence with someone at work, for instance, an employer is expected to dismiss the individual.

If that individual continues to be employed by the company and harms another worker or customer, the corporation is held responsible.

When Isn’t the Employer Responsible?

There are instances where employers are not deemed responsible for employees’ actions. If the negligence occurs beyond the scope of employment, an organization is not held accountable for the consequences.

Additionally, if an individual is negligent for personal gain or malicious reasons, courts may not believe the employer is responsible. In most cases, it must be proven the individual was not executing any responsibilities within the scope of employment and that there were no previous indications of a threat.


Whether the negligence occurred in a hospital or a convenience store, employers are frequently held responsible for their employees’ actions. The respondeat superior doctrine encourages organizations to hire carefully and keep their employees’ and customers’ safety prioritized.

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