Respondeat superior

Respondeat superior (Latin: "let the master answer"; plural: respondeant superiores) is a doctrine that a party is responsible for (has vicarious liability for) acts of their agents.[1]:794 For example, in the United States, there are circumstances when an employer is liable for acts of employees performed within the course of their employment.[2] This rule is also called the master-servant rule, recognized in both common law and civil law jurisdictions.[3]

In a broader scope, respondeat superior is based upon the concept of vicarious liability.

In common law

When applied to physical torts, an employer-employee relationship must be established (meaning that no vicarious liability is established for work performed as an independent contractor) and the act must be committed within the scope of employment (i.e., substantially within time and geographical limits, job description and at least with partial intent to further employer's business).

Historically, this doctrine was applied in master-servant and employer-employee relationships. When an employee or a servant commits a civil wrong against a third party, the employer or master could be liable for the acts of the servant or employee when those acts are committed within the scope of the relationship. The third party could proceed against the servant and master, that is, the employee and employer. The action against the employee would be based on his conduct. The action against the employer is based on the theory of vicarious liability, wherein a party can be held liable for the acts of a different party.

The employer-employee relationship is the most common area respondeat superior is applied, but the doctrine is also used in the agency relationship. In this relationship, the principal becomes liable for the actions of the agent even if the principal did not commit the act. There are three considerations generally:

  1. Was the act committed within the time and space limits of the agency?
  2. Was the offense incidental to, or of the same general nature as, the responsibilities the agent is authorized to perform?
  3. Was the agent motivated to any degree to benefit the principal by committing the act?

The degree to which these are answered in the affirmative dictates the degree to which the doctrine can be applied.

Common law distinguishes between civil and criminal forms of respondeat superior.

In international law

At issue in the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal following the Allied occupation of Nazi Germany after World War II was a question concerning principles closely related to respondeat superior, which came to be known by the term command responsibility. The Nuremberg trials established that persons cannot use the defense that they were only following the orders of their superiors, if that order violates international norms but especially that superiors who ordered or "should have known" of such violations yet failed to intervene are also criminally liable.

See also


  1. Criminal Law - Cases and Materials, 7th ed. 2012, Wolters Kluwer Law & Business; John Kaplan, Robert Weisberg, Guyora Binder, ISBN 978-1-4548-0698-1,
  2. Harger, Lloyd. "Workers' Compensation, A Brief History". Florida Department of Financial Services. Retrieved 22 June 2010.
  3. Owen, Ralph Dornfeld. "Tort Liability in German School Law". Law and Contemporary Problems. Duke University School of Law. 20 (1): 72–79. JSTOR 1190275.
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