Respondeat Superior: Employer and Principal Liability in Massachusetts

If you were injured by the negligent or reckless conduct of an employee at a business, you might be wondering whom you should sue: the employee or the employer. In the legal world, the concept of suing the employer for the actions of their employee is known as respondeat superior.

The phrase “respondeat superior” translates from Latin to mean “let the master answer.” It allows a personal injury plaintiff to target the party that is more likely to have the insurance coverage necessary to pay for your damages. Determining whether respondeat superior applies may be more complicated if the negligent party might have been an independent contractor or if you can name multiple parties in your lawsuit. Give your attorney as much time as possible to sort through these issues before the statute of limitations runs out on your claim.

The Law Office of John J. Sheehan should be your first call if you believe you have a case. Our Massachusetts personal injury attorneys will work efficiently and discretely to help you identify who is responsible for the harms you sustained in your accident. For a free review of your case, give us a call at (617) 925-6407.

What Is Respondeat Superior?

Suppose you get in a car accident. Whose fault was it? While sometimes the wrongdoer is clear, seldom is there not at least some dispute over who was at fault. When you get into an accident with someone who is acting at the discretion of an employer (think: delivery driver, someone doing errands for a superior, driving to a client meeting, etc.), the law may hold the employer responsible for the employee’s conduct.

Vicarious liability is a legal concept where a party can be held responsible for another party’s tortious (wrongful) conduct. Respondeat superior is a vicarious liability rule that specifically involves an employer or other party being held liable when an employee or other agent acts wrongfully under the scope of employment.

Massachusetts, like many other states, has very specific rules about how respondeat superior is used. To prove respondeat superior in Massachusetts, the victim must show that there was an employer-employee relationship at the time of the incident, and that the employee was acting within the scope of their employment. For instance, a doctor would be acting within the scope of their employment if they were performing surgery and made a mistake, but not if they were driving home from work and caused an accident. Many instances of employee negligence are not this clear, so ask your Boston personal injury lawyer if you have questions about your specific situation.

Benefits of Respondeat Superior in Personal Injury Lawsuits in Massachusetts

Complicated legalese like respondeat superior may seem intimidating to an injury victim. However, this is a valuable tool that can provide the opportunity to recover the full amount of compensation that you deserve.

In many cases, suing an employee or agent alone – the specific individual that injured you – will not provide the coverage that you need. While some employees may have their own insurance coverage that kicks in to cover your damages – such as auto insurance for a car accident or malpractice insurance for medical errors – it is substantially more likely that their employer has obtained a more substantial policy that will account for all of your damages won in your lawsuit. If you pursue a case and win, but the defendant is unable to pay, you may be left without the compensation you deserve. Respondeat superior makes that unfortunate outcome substantially less likely.

If you have questions about who might be liable for your injuries caused by negligence, our seasoned Cambridge personal injury attorneys may be able to help assuage your concerns and put you on the best available path to recovery.

Initiating a Lawsuit Against More than One Party

The person who has been wronged or injured due to the wrongdoing of another is called the plaintiff in a civil action. This is the person that initiates the lawsuit in court and makes allegations that they have been wronged by another person or entity. From a tactical viewpoint, a plaintiff may want to file an action against all relevant parties to increase the likelihood of recovery.

For example, a delivery driver may not have significant amounts of insurance or assets, but the company the driver was driving for might. Thus, if a person is seriously injured in an accident, it may be in the interest of the plaintiff to try to recover damages from the company, alone or in addition to the driver.

The driver, in most instances, would be protected by the employer regardless of who a plaintiff initially decides to name in the lawsuit. When an individual is acting within the purview of their employment, the employer is typically responsible for the wrongdoing of that employee. In a legal sense, it can get complicated if the employee is acting negligently (such as drinking and driving, acting unsafely around customers, or conducting themselves otherwise unreasonably) on their own volition, but in most instances, the employer will bear the weight of the responsibility if they were responsible for the employee’s conduct and/or, the employee was acting at the employer’s direction when the injury occurred.

How Does Respondeat Superior Work for Independent Contractors in Massachusetts?

The “gig economy” has rapidly expanded over the past several years. Gig workers are those who take on multiple small jobs as independent contractors instead of working for a single employer. By law, independent contractors are self-employed and generally identified based on their ability to set their own hours and control how they operate. Examples of independent contractors include many rideshare drivers, plumbers, and delivery drivers, to name a few.

The independent contractor classification comes with many benefits to both the worker and the client. One benefit that the employer gets out of this relationship is protection from lawsuits against the independent contractor. In other words, if an independent contractor negligently causes an accident that injures you, you most likely cannot use respondeat superior to sue anyone who hired them, since the independent contractor is technically their own employer.

For instance, if you are involved in a car accident with an Uber driver, you will not be able to sue Uber. You will be limited to filing a lawsuit against the driver and recovering from their insurance. However, rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft provide supplemental auto insurance for their drivers that covers accidents that happen while the contractor is actively working as a rideshare driver. Therefore, while you cannot sue the rideshare company, you will still likely be able to recover compensation through the insurance coverage that they provide.

How Does Respondeat Superior Affect Your Time Limit to File a Personal Injury Lawsuit in Massachusetts?

The statute of limitations is the law that governs the amount of time that can pass before a lawsuit is officially filed. Each state has a different statute of limitations with unique rules and exceptions depending on who the parties are and the nature of the accident. In Massachusetts, personal injury plaintiffs generally have three years to formally file their complaint in court. The clock typically begins on the date of the accident, except in situations where the victim was a minor at the time of the accident, couldn’t discover the injury immediately, or where the defendant fraudulently hid the cause from them. However, it is best not to rely on these exceptions, because failing to file within the appropriate deadline is a complete bar to recovery.

This is why it is so important that you contact your Somerville personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. Complaints where respondeat superior may be involved are inherently more complicated. To give yourself the best chance of recovery, act quickly so that your attorney has plenty of time to assess where liability lies in your case and what your best option may be.

Massachusetts Personal Injury Attorneys

Initiating a lawsuit is one of the most important and complicated parts of engaging in litigation. Although a plaintiff’s initial complaint can be amended if necessary, it bodes well to make sure you have all of the information possible before filing a lawsuit to increase the likelihood of success. Understanding the potential people or entities you can or should file suit against, what the implications are of doing so, and what your options are for litigation are all critical to the lawsuit. Having Boston personal injury attorneys that you can trust to help you navigate the legal system will help you even when things become seemingly complicated. Our team of Wakefield personal injury attorneys will work with you from beginning to end to ensure you are comfortable and understand what is going on with your case. If you or anyone you know has been injured in the greater Boston area, contact our Boston office today.

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