What is Vicarious Liability in California Law?


Vicarious liability is a legal doctrine under which parties can be held indirectly liable for an injury, even though they did not cause it. In California, someone who is vicariously liable may be legally responsible for a plaintiff's medical billslost wagespain and suffering and other losses.

This is important because the "vicariously liable" party may have more assets and insurance coverage than the person who was directly negligent or reckless.

However, the doctrine is limited to situations in which the party has a legal relationship to the person who caused the harm and the right to control at least some of that person's actions.

In California, there are three common situations in which vicarious liability applies:

To help you better understand California's laws on vicarious liability, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

male boss in suit supervising receptionists in headsets

1. What is vicarious liability?

Under the law, people are normally only responsible for their own negligence, recklessness or intentionally wrongful acts.

But in certain cases, the law deems it fair to hold someone else responsible for an injury. This is known as “vicarious liability” or  “indirect liability.”

Vicarious liability arises out of a legal relationship in which:

  • One party has the right to control the actions of another (at least to some extent), and/or
  • It is fair as a matter of public policy to make that party assume the risks of another person's behavior.

Vicarious liability arises most frequently in the context of a relationship between an employer and employee or a principal and its agent.

2. When is an employer vicariously liable for the acts of employees?

Under California's respondeat superior law, employers can often be held vicariously liable for the negligence of their employees.1

For the employer to be liable, the employee must be acting within the ordinary scope of his or her employment. That is the employee must be doing something the employer might reasonably expect him or her to do at his job -- whether or not it is part of the employee's regular job duties.2

Example: Jolene is injured in a slip-and-fall accident after the receptionist at her hair salon spills a coffee in the welcome area and fails to clean it up in time. Although drinking coffee is not part of her job description, it is reasonable to expect that she will drink coffee at work. Because such accidents are a foreseeable consequence of an employee's actions in a retail business, California law deems it fair to hold the employer responsible for such injuries.

Note that an employer may be directly liable for an injury under California's law on negligent hiring, retention and supervision of an employee if knew or should have known that the employee was a risk to others.

Example: The Townsend Trucking Co hires a driver with a history of drugged driving convictions and at-fault accidents. The company is in a hurry to fill the position, so it skips the standard background check.

Two weeks on the job, the driver is high on codeine and slams into another vehicle on the freeway, killing both occupants. In a trucking accident lawsuit, Townsend is likely to be found liable for the two wrongful deaths based on the negligent hiring of a dangerous driver. 

3. What is the rule for agents, partners or independent contractors?

Vicarious liability can also apply to principals as the result of acts of their:

  • Agents,
  • Partners,
  • Members of joint ventures,
  • Independent contractors (sometimes), and
  • Anyone performing a non-delegable duty on the principal's behalf.3

In California, a non-delegable duty is any legal responsibility that for reasons of public safety cannot be entrusted to someone else -- for instance, employers may not delegate their obligation to keep their workplaces harassment-free. They are responsible for a harassment-free environment by law.

In other cases, companies and individuals (the "principal") are liable for the acts of their agents within the scope of the agent's powers on behalf of the principal.

Example: Lou suffers lost earning capacity when he is bitten by a dog while looking at a house he is considering buying. The dog bit him because the real estate agent negligently failed to properly close the side gate. Because the agent was acting on behalf of the seller of the house, Lou may be able to recover damages from the seller or the seller's homeowner liability insurer. He may also be able to recover from the real estate agent or her employer.

4. Are parents liable for their children's wrongdoing?

Parents can be held vicariously liable in California for damages caused by their children under age 18. This type of vicarious liability is found under three general circumstances:

When the child engages in willful misconduct (regardless of whether the parent knew the child was dangerous),
When the parent knowns a child is dangerous and fails to prevent an injury, or
When the parent lets the child use a firearm and as a result, someone is injured.4

5. What about responsibility for co-conspirator(s)' acts?

Under California law, a member of a conspiracy can be held vicariously liable for crimes committed by his co-conspirators. The test is whether the co-conspirator(s ) actions were:

  1. Foreseeable, and
  2. Committed with the intent of furthering the objective of the conspiracy.

Some crimes can lead to the possibility of damages in a California civil lawsuit in addition to (or instead of ) criminal charges. Common crimes in this category include burglary, robbery, assault, sexual assault and manslaughter.

Injured in California? Call us for help…

If you were injured in California we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Our experienced California injury attorneys can help you determine who may be legally liable for your injuries.

Call us at (855) LAWFIRM to schedule your free consultation.

We may also be able to help if you need to bring a lawsuit involving vicarious liability in Nevada.

Legal references:

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