Respondeat Superior – Car Accidents and Company Vehicles

Cars accident on city road in company carAccidents can happen in any place and at any time. In most cases, you might have a good idea of who to hold responsible, as the other person operating the vehicle might be the only person available. Sometimes, however, you might encounter situations in which the driver may not have enough money to cover all of your medical costs, or might work for a company or corporation that could provide more of a recovery. While most people might want to immediately hold an employer for the actions of an employee, however, there are several requirements that must be met in order for a person to hold an employer responsible under a theory of respondeat superior.

Respondeat Superior

While most people might not be familiar with the phrase “respondeat superior,” knowing who to sue is always important. Simply because a company vehicle is involved in an accident does not mean that the employer will automatically be responsible. Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, a plaintiff must show four things in order to recover damages.

Scope of Employment

The first thing a plaintiff must show in any respondeat superior claim is that the employee was acting within the scope of employment. While this term can seem a bit vague at times, generally, if an employee was performing work for the employer at the time of the accident, then the employer can be held responsible for the actions of the employee. For example, if a pizza delivery driver caused an accident due to his own negligence as he was delivering pizzas, a plaintiff could likely bring a suit against the employer, since the pizza delivery driver was engaging in the employer’s business at the time of the accident.

Departing or Stepping Aside

Even if the employee was engaged in the furtherance of the employer’s business at the time of the accident, there are some situations in which the employer can not be held liable, even if the accident occurred during normal work hours. As mentioned above, in order to prevail against an employer under a theory of respondeat superior, a plaintiff must show that the employee was acting within the scope of employment during the time of the accident. There are times, however, when an employee may choose to do his own thing during the work day, and may deviate so far from furthering the employer’s business that any relationship is broken. Courts have generally used the categories of frolic and detour to assist in the determination of whether a person was acting within the scope of employment.

A “detour” occurs when there is only a slight deviation from the employee’s actions that still falls within the scope of the job. Generally, detours are short-lived and do not break the chain of employment. The typical example of a detour would be if an employee stopped to pick up gasoline. If, for example, the pizza delivery driver was involved in a car accident after filling up the gas tank at a gas station, it is likely that the plaintiff could reach the employer, since getting gasoline does not take very long and is generally necessary for the employee to continue his work.

A “frolic,” on the other hand, concerns a deviation from the scope of employment that is much more pronounced than a mere detour, which erases the connection between the employee and the employer. For example, if the employee was involved in an accident while taking time off to visit a friend at a bar or to go shopping for personal effects, courts would likely find that the employee had sufficiently distanced himself from acting in furtherance of the business, and that the connection between the employer and employee was broken. This can be true even if the accident occurred during normal work hours, and even if the employee was driving a company vehicle at the time.

At the Direction of Employer

In addition to these requirements, the work the employee was engaged in must have been directed by the employer in order for a plaintiff to hold an employer responsible. For example, if a contractor was responsible for checking worksites, but then began to drive to sites outside of the proscribed worksites, then he would be acting outside of the direction of the employer. As a result, the plaintiff would not be able to hold an employer responsible for any accident occurring during that time.

Nature of Employment

Finally, courts will look to whether the nature of the employment could lead a person to believe that the company authorized or expected a person to act in such a manner. This means that, even if there was no direct order to act in a certain way, if the employee’s actions would fit within the nature of his employment, then a plaintiff would be able to bring suit against the employer.


One of the biggest issues that might arise from an automobile accident is that of recovery. While a company might have enough capital to provide sufficient monetary recovery to cover any medical bills or lost wages a plaintiff might incur, it is generally unlikely that the average person will have enough to meet those demands. As a result, it is generally in the employer’s best interests to argue that there was no employee-employer connection at the time of the accident.