Doctrine of Respondeat Superior


Liability forms the focal point of Civil Law. According to Salmond, ‘liability is the bond of necessity that exists between the wrongdoer and the remedy of the wrong’. Liability is often bifurcated into various kinds. In civil proceedings, liability can be regarded as the enforcement of the right of the plaintiff against the defendant. Usually, Civil liability is categorized as a remedial liability. It is based upon the Latin maxim ‘ubi jus ibiremedium’ which means ‘when there is a right there must be some remedy’. It is called remedial because it aims and focuses on protecting the right/s of the plaintiff instead of merely punishing the wrongdoer. In Criminal liability, the wrongdoer must pay penalties or follow the punishment as prescribed by the law via courts acting as its agent. This kind of liability is referred to as penal liability. It predominantly aims at punishing the wrongdoer.

Furthermore, there lies strict liability which had evolved from the landmark case of Ryland v. Fletcher[i]. It imposes liability upon the person even if he may have not actively intended to do the act. Nonetheless, strict liability does have a few exceptions like plaintiff’s fault, the act of God, the act of third party and consent of the plaintiff, etc. Absolute liability had evolved from the concept of strict liability which completely struck down the exceptions given in strict liability and made the person ‘absolutely liable’ for his actions. It evolved from the case of M. C. Mehta v. Union of India[ii] also famously known as the Oleum Gas Leak Case.

Vicarious Liability

While discussing liabilities, one cannot fail to mention the concept of Vicarious Liability. It is one of the most disputed concepts in liability. Vicarious liability is the kind of liability that imposes the liability upon a person who did not actually cause the injury but has a legal relationship with the person who in reality caused the injury. Such legal relationships could be that of a parent and child, employer and employee, master and servant, etc. It is a type of secondary liability and is also referred to as ‘imputed negligence’ at times. Vicarious liability binds the master for the acts of his servant which are done in course of employment. Vicarious liability has been evolving with the help of judges but the common notion underlying such liability is that the employer, under whose instructions the employee committed the act, has far better financial capacity than the employee to pay the damages. Two important legal maxims revolve around the concept of vicarious liability. One is ‘Qui Facit Per Alium Facit Per Se’ and the other is ‘Respondeat Superior’.

What is Doctrine of Respondeat Superior?

The legal doctrine of Respondeat superior emerged centuries ago. It originated as a means of holding the head of a household responsible for the acts of the servants and slaves. Towards the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, judges began to apply respondeat superior to remote business relationships like the relationship that persisted between the owner of a ship and the crew. The courts began broadening the meaning of this doctrine and started applying it to not only specifically commanded acts but also a set of acts committed in the course of business. The dawn of the nineteenth century witnessed the expansion of respondeat superior where even independent contractors were held liable if the act done was of harmful nature.

The doctrine of ‘Respondeat Superior’ is a Latin maxim, which means ‘Let the master answer’. This legal maxim makes an employer responsible for the actions of their employee when the actions take place within the scope of employment. An employer is made responsible or accountable by transferring the liability upon the employer. This doctrine is not only beneficial for the employee as it shifts the liability upon the employer, but also for the injured party as it is believed that the employer is in a better position to pay the damages than the employee. This maxim emphasizes on ‘superior-subordinate’ or ‘master-servant’ relationship. For the application of this maxim, it is necessary to establish such ‘superior-subordinate’ relationship between the employee and the employer on whose instructions the employee acted.

Essential Ingredients of the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior

An employee cannot merely seek protection from paying damages or being held liable through the application of this maxim. Two prerequisites must be proved for the smooth applicating of ‘respondeat superior’. Firstly, it is essential to determine that the wrongful act was committed by the employee or the servant, i.e., a true employee-employer or master-servant relationship must be established. Secondly, the commission of the tortious act must be within the limit of employment. It is pertinent to note that the liability of a master or employee is not limited only to the acts which he expressly authorizes, but also for such torts which are committed by his servant in the course of employment.

What determines the Employee and Employer relationship?

An act is said to be done in the course of employment when it is a wrongful act authorized by the master or a wrongful and unauthorized way of doing some act authorized by the master. But in order to understand the liability in such cases, we must dive deeper into what establishes such a relation. Certain tests have evolved to help determine this relation. In the current times, the ‘hire and fire’ test has gained importance. It establishes whether an employer is in a position to hire and fire his employee. If he does possess such authority, he would be held liable for the acts done by his employee. Another test that has become extinct now is the ‘control test’. The case of Cassidy v. Ministry of Health[iii] can be referred to while studying the control test. In this case, the court was of the opinion the control test checks whether the employer actually controls what his employee does and how he does it.

Negligent and Intentional Torts

An important question that one needs to answer is whether this legal doctrine would be applicable in the case of both negligent as well as intentional torts. The answer to this question is affirmative. In case of a negligent tort or act, the presumption is that the employer either directed the employee or gave the employee the extent of autonomy to do the work and if the employer was dissatisfied with the choices made due to the autonomy, the employer could restructure those choices. Hence, the employees were making wrong choices while exercising the autonomy given by the employer, the employer would be held liable for their choices. On the contrary, in the case of intentional torts or acts, the court is less likely to see it this way. The presumption of the employers is that employees would not intentionally cause injury to their customers, and if the employee does so, he is assumed to have acted on his own rather than on behalf of the employer. But if it is shown that the employer authorized such an intentional act and would, therefore, make the employer liable. It is worth noting that even if the employer hires a tort-feasor, who has previously committed certain offences and if such an employee is negligent, the employer would still be held accountable.

Case Laws

There are certain landmark judgements that have helped evolve this doctrine and elucidate upon the various aspects of the same. They are as follows:

1. Lloyd v. Grace Smith & Co., (1912) AC 716

In this case, Mrs. Lloyd owned two cottages. She called Grace, Smith & Co., a firm of solicitors, to consult them as she was dissatisfied with the income she was receiving from the property. The managing clerk of the firm advised her to sell the cottages and sign two sale deeds for the said purpose. She signed the supposed ‘sale deeds’, which in reality were gift deeds in favour of the managing clerk. The House of Lords unanimously held that the firm was responsible for the fraud of their agent i.e., the managing clerk, although was acting for his own benefit and the firm had no knowledge of the fraud, they would be held liable as he was acting in the course of his apparent or ostensible authority.

Principal takeaway: When a servant is acting in the course of the business, the master will be liable, even if the servant was acting for his own benefit, rather than that of the master.

2. Morris v. C.W. Martin & Sons, (1966) 1 Q.B. 716

In this case, C.W. Martin & Sons were the bailees of a coat handed over to them for cleaning. The coat was given to their servant, Morrisey for cleaning. The servant stole the coat. The Court of Appeal held that the act of the servant in stealing the coat, was a wrongful act done in the course of employment and the master, i.e., the defendants could be made liable for the same.

Principal takeaway: If the dishonest act is done in the scope of employment; the employers would be held responsible for the actions of their employee as they had entrusted him with the work. It would’ve been a different scenario if the goods in possession of the master by way of bailment are stolen by a servant to whom the goods had not been entrusted.

3. Poland v. Parr & Sons, (1927) 1 K.B. 23

In this case, a carter by mistake suspected that some boys were stealing sugar from his employer’s wagon. In order to protect the sugar, he struck one of the boys. Consequently, the boy fell and was run over by the wagon. He lost his leg. It was said that, although carter’s act was excessive, it was not excessive to the point where it would be regarded to be outside the scope of his employment. Hence, making the employer liable.

Principle takeaway: The servant has an implied authority to protect the property of his master. Use of excessive force to carry on this duty during the course of the employment would make the employer liable.

4. Century Insurance Co. v. Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, (1942) A.C. 509

In this case, the driver of a petrol lorry was working under his employer. One day, in the course of his employment, the driver was transferring petrol from the lorry to an underground tank when he stuck a match to light a cigarette and threw it on the floor. This caused a fire and an explosion, causing damage to L’s property. The court was of the opinion that although the driver lighted the match for his own enjoyment, it would still be considered to be a negligent method of conducting the work assigned. Hence, as the act was in the course of his employment, the employers were liable for the driver’s negligence.

Principal takeaway: In cases where a servant is negligent while performing his duties and his conduct causes any loss to a third party, the employer would be liable for his negligent conduct and loss to the third party.


The concept of vicarious liability has been applied since time immemorial. It would be right to say that the doctrine of Respondeat Superior would not extinguish at least in the near future. Employees have been using this as a defence to save themselves from paying excessive damages. Nonetheless, an employer can be saved from paying hefty damages and being held accountable for the acts of his employee when the employee does an act, not in the course of employment. Hence, while applying the doctrine of Respondeat Superior, it is very essential to determine not only the relation between the real wrongdoer and who is being held accountable for his wrongdoing but also whether or not such activity was done outside or within the course of employment. The courts must ensure that the application of this maxim is not arbitrary. In order to ensure justice and not hold an innocent person accountable for someone else’s omission or commission, such nitty-gritty must not be overlooked by the courts.

[i](1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330

[ii]AIR. 1987 SC 1086

[iii](1951) 2 KB 343

Aayushi Mittra

Aayushi Mittra is a Fifth Year Law Student pursuing 5 Years BLS LLB at SVKM's Pravin Gandhi College of Law. Securing AIR 18 in CS Foundation exams, she wishes to not restrict herself to the ambit of General Corporate Laws, but also wishes to explore various other fields of law like IPR, Cyber Law, Family Law, Capital Markets & Securities Laws and Sports Law. Apart from academics, she immensely enjoys participating in Drafting competitions, MUNs and Article Writing competitions.