A well-established legal principle says you can hold people responsible for what others do when acting on their behalf, such as suing employers for the acts of their employees. The idea is named with the Latin phrase “respondeat superior,” meaning “let the master respond” or “the superior answers.”

If an employee of a company hurts someone, the company may stand a strong chance of facing a lawsuit for negligence, even if the individual employee also faces a suit. However, some companies are more aggressive than others when it comes to avoiding responsibility for what happens under their command.

Avoiding liability by avoiding employees

A recent article published by The New York Times and ProPublica detailed accusations that online retailer Amazon unfairly escapes lawsuits from people harmed by their delivery drivers.

The authors argue the company treats the drivers like contractors in every important way except in name. They say trucks delivering for the company often go unmarked, and the article describes one such company apparently created solely to deliver for the retailer.

The Times and ProPublica report the company has nonetheless stated in court that it is not responsible for the harm done by its drivers. The companies acting as the drivers’ immediate employers agree to “hold harmless Amazon” for “all loss or damage to personal property or bodily harm including death.”

A legal test for your sharing responsibility

Courts use strict tests to help them decide if an employer should take responsibility, which sometimes goes by the name of “vicarious liability.”

The main question is whether the employees were acting within the “scope of employment.” Courts typically apply a test like this:

  • The employee caused the harm while on their shift, or “on the clock.”
  • The employee caused harm while doing something the employer hired the employee to do.
  • The employer was benefiting from the employee doing the activity when they caused the harm.

If all three apply, the case can at least be considered as a possible case of vicarious liability.

Whether someone doing your bidding is your responsibility

From the test, it is easy to why people may win suits against surgeons’ employers under the doctrine.

It can be harder to see, but employers sometimes lose suits after or police and teachers exploit or abuse people. Employers have hired them to exercise the authority they misuse, courts sometimes find.

The Times and ProPublica raise the question of why it can be possible to hold hospitals and their surgeons responsible when large retailers and their drivers are not.