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Vicarious Liability: A Legal Definition

Updated January 22, 2024 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

You may be familiar with the term vicarious, which is often explained in everyday terms as to “live vicariously through someone.” It refers to the act or mindset of living life through other people’s experiences rather than living those experiences out yourself.

In the law, there is a legal doctrine called the law of vicarious liability. The same principle applies here, except legally, the person who did not directly “experience” harming or injuring another person may still be held liable for that harm/injury.

In legal terms, vicarious liability holds one person responsible for another’s actions. This principle applies when a person doesn’t directly cause harm but is still legally liable. It’s common in relationships such as employee-employer, business partners, or parent-child relationships. For example, parents might be liable for a teenager’s car crash, or a company could be held responsible for an employee’s property damage.

What Is Vicarious Liability?

Vicarious liability is the liability held by a person or entity that is in charge (called the principal) of another person (called the agent). The person, usually an employer, is responsible for the actions of their employee (or other subordinate) if that employee causes harm or injury to another person.

Vicarious liability is typically considered a tort, which is an act or inaction that results in another person’s harm or injury. This is also known as negligence. Find out more about the meaning of negligence here.

Why Vicarious Liability?

The purpose of vicarious liability is to hold the principal responsible for their contribution. By authorizing the employee, they ultimately hold liability for the employee’s actions. Unless, of course, the employee acted outside of the responsibilities given to them by the employer.

Definition of Vicarious Liability in Law

The legal term for vicarious liability is respondeat superior. In Latin, ‘respondeat superior’ translates to “that the master must answer.” It is a legal doctrine stating that a principal is legally responsible for the negligence and wrongdoing done by an agent if the act occurs within the scope of employment

We will break down the vicarious liability elements of principal, agent, and scope of employment a little further down the page.

Vicarious Liability Elements

There are many different types of vicarious liability cases, so it’s best to start with some basic vocabulary. Once you understand these words, it’s easier to understand the different elements at play during a claim or trial.


The principal is the person, employer, company, or entity who is legally responsible for the vicarious liability because of the actions taken by the agent. The principal has authority over the agent and may also be known as the agent’s boss, manager, or other role that is responsible for the agent’s actions. 


The agent is the person who performed the action that caused harm or injury to another person. They work for or have a position beneath the principal. The agent is typically an employee, but could also be a child to a parent (principal) or a doctor who works for a principal hospital.


The plaintiff is the person who has suffered the injury or harm because of the reckless actions of the agent.

Scope of Employment

To follow the vicarious liability rule, the agent has to be acting within their scope of employment. The harm or injury done to the plaintiff needs to have happened in the course of the responsibilities that are part of the agent’s job. This means that the employee/agent was acting within the bounds of the professional relationship between themselves and their employer/principal when the act was committed.

In summary, if the employee acts within their job duties and obligations, then the employer can be held liable for the employee’s actions.

If, however, the employee diverges at all from their scope of employment, the law of vicarious liability does not apply. 

Vicarious Liability Examples for Scope of Employment

Suppose Dwayne hired Catherine as a delivery truck driver to deliver packages of homemade soap and run to stories to get supplies. One day, Dwayne told Catherine to drive across town to deliver a package. As Catherine was driving, she didn’t see a four-way stop sign. As she continued her speed, she hit a bicyclist, throwing the woman off her bike.

Since Catherine was delivering a package, one of her job responsibilities, she is within her scope of employment. Dwayne can be held vicariously liable for the cyclist’s personal injury claims.

In an alternative scenario, Catherine stopped at the stop sign, letting the biker pass. However, she becomes irate at another passing motorist, leans out the window of the car, and shoots the other motorist. While the shooting occurred during Catherine’s normal job duties, the shooting was not within the course and scope of her employment.

Dwayne, therefore, is not vicariously liable for any injury sustained by the other driver.

Independent Contractors

Scope of employment can get convoluted when applied to independent contractors. Most of the time, an employer is not vicariously liable as an independent contractor. But if you have been injured by an independent contractor hired by a larger company, talk to us today.

Additionally, if you are an employee with questions about Indiana workers’ compensation violations, click on the link to learn more.

Respondeat Superior Doctrine

Respondeat superior is the legal doctrine that underpins vicarious liability. It means, quite literally, that the superior responds on behalf of the subordinate.

In vicarious liability cases involving respondeat superior, your attorney will build a case to prove that both the employee/agent—the one who did the harm—and the employer/principal—the one in charge of the agent—should be held liable.

The Court looks to a 10-part test when deciding whether an employer/employee relationship exists or an independent contractor relationship exists:

  1. The extent of control which, by agreement, the master may exercise over the details of the work;
  2. Whether or not the one employed is engaged in a distinct occupation or business;
  3. The kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the employer or by a specialist without supervision;
  4. The skill required in the particular occupation;
  5. Whether the employer or the workman supplies the instrumentalities, tools,  and the place of work for the person doing the work;
  6. The length of time for which the person is employed;
  7. The method of payment, whether by the time or by the job;
  8. Whether or not the work is part of the regular business of the business;
  9. Whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relation of master and servant; and
  10. Whether the principal is or is not in business.

No single factor is dispositive, meaning no single factor is more important than the other and there is no set number of factors the Court needs to find to hold an employee/employer relationship.

Types of Vicarious Liability Cases

Although employer-employee relationships make up the majority of vicarious liability claims and cases, there are many other types of scenarios where vicarious liability can be assigned.


Employer-employee relationships are the most common type of vicarious liability cases. If the act is done within the scope of employment, the employer is held liable for the employee’s actions and misconduct.

By overseeing the scope of employment, the employer has control over the people they hire. When looking at vicarious liability law, it’s important to establish that there is an employer-employee relationship. The employer usually manages and controls the employee’s work. They may assign their schedule and are in charge of hiring and firing. If the employee does something wrong while on the job and within their scope of employment, then the employer can be held liable.

It’s important to note that proving vicarious liability can be more complicated than it seems.


Medical vicarious liability cases happen when hospitals, doctors, or superiors are responsible for damage done by employees. This is similar to employer-employee vicarious liability cases, except they can become even more complicated due to the nature of medical care and medical malpractice.

Any hospital or clinic can be held vicariously liable no matter who the negligent staff member is. Depending on the circumstances, a medical malpractice claim against a physician and/or the hospital may also be pursued.


Parents can be held vicariously liable for their child’s actions if the child is acting for the parent. Additionally, if a parent is negligent around their child, the parent can be directly liable for the child’s actions.

Parental vicarious liability examples include:

  • A parent asks a child to drive them to a store and the child runs into a pedestrian while pulling out of the driveway
  • A child vandalizes a public, government space
  • A child commits a hate crime


Principal vicarious liability is less about a boss and subordinate and more about property allowance. The main type of principal vicarious liability case is when an owner lends something to another person.

One principal vicarious liability example is loaning a car to a friend, and the friend injuring someone in a car crash.

If you need an Indianapolis premises liability lawyer, contact your attorney at WKW today.

Contact Wilson Kehoe Winingham Today

Making vicarious liability claims can become complicated fast. That’s why it’s best to have an experienced attorney from WKW represent you.

If you have been injured because of someone else’s negligence, you deserve justice. The responsible parties—both the employee and employer—should be held accountable. Call us today at 317.886.1924 or fill out an online form for a free case evaluation. If you’d like more insight on legal terms, check out WKW’s legal dictionary blog here.

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