When someone is injured by an employee of a business, it isn’t unusual for the individual to often try to hold the employer responsible for the employee’s conduct to bring a party with a “deep pocket” (and potentially their insurance carrier) into the litigation. Depending on the facts of the case, an employer may be liable for negligent supervision and retention of an employee or negligent hiring as discussed in previous blog posts. A recent decision of the New York Appellate Division, Second Department examined a third basis for liability – the doctrine of respondeat superior (which translates to “let the master answer”). Under this doctrine, an employer can be held vicariously liable for the conduct of its employees if certain requirements are met.
Browne v. Lyft, Inc. concerned a lawsuit brought by a Lyft rider who alleged that the driver of the hired vehicle sexually assaulted her. Lyft moved to dismiss the action on the grounds that the complaint failed to state a cause of action against the company because Lyft was not responsible for the driver’s actions as a matter of law. The Trial court denied the motion to dismiss and Lyft appealed. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that even accepting the allegations of the complaint as true, no cause of action was stated against the company because the requirements for vicarious liability were not established.
The idea behind respondeat superior is that employers (particularly corporate employers) act through their individual employees and should be held responsible for their conduct. However, liability only applies to acts taken “in furtherance of the employer’s business and within the scope of employment.” In addition, the tortious conduct must generally be foreseeable and intended to further the employer’s business. Respondeat superior does not apply where the employee acts for “wholly personal reasons” that are outside the scope of employment.
Applying these rules, the Appellate Division held that the sexual assault perpetrated by the driver was clearly personal conduct and not related to the performance of his job. Therefore, Lyft was not vicariously liable for the driver’s actions.
Claims of vicarious liability are fact-sensitive, so it is important to retain an experienced attorney to help prove or defend against a lawsuit. If you are on either side of a potential claim, contact one of our litigation attorneys for assistance.