What is vicarious liability?

Updated: March 26, 2020

Vicarious liability describes a situation where someone is held responsible for the actions of another person.

In legal language, the term 'vicarious' means "something performed, exercised, received, or suffered in place of another".

Vicarious liability exists to help injured claimants claim compensation from a party that actually has the ability to pay, like a company with insurance, instead of an individual employee.

A lone employee may not be able to pay even a small compensation award of £1,000s, whereas an employer's insurance policy will cover damages of £100,000s.

So, when does vicarious liability apply?

In the workplace, an employer can be held vicariously liable for the actions or omissions of their employees.

If an employee's actions led to another employee or member of the public being injured, the negligent worker's employer could be held liable.

The employer is liable even if the negligent employee caused an accident by ignoring their manager's instructions, or if the employee broke the company's health and safety rules.

In the event of a successful injury claim, the employer would be liable to pay financial compensation to the injured person. This compensation is almost always paid by the employer's insurance company, however.

For example...

If a line manager restarts a conveyor belt that an employee is repairing, and the employee is injured, the company would be vicariously liable.

The negligent line manager is very unlikely to be held personally responsible for the purposes of a compensation claim.

The company would be liable even if the company's health and safety protocols state that the belt should be checked for obstructions before activation, and the manager ignored this rule.

Although the company may take disciplinary action against the manager, this has no bearing on the outcome of the injury claim.

When does vicarious liability not apply?

In general, vicarious liability applies to any injury caused by an employee's actions or failure to act, during the course of their employment. Vicarious liability also usually applies to accidents on company property.

This means that vicarious liability may not apply to accidents that occur out of hours, away from company premises.

For example, if an employee injured a co-worker when giving them a lift to work, the employer would probably not be held liable, even if the employee was driving a company vehicle.

Can I still claim if the accident was caused by an independent contractor?

Maybe. An employer might successfully dispute vicarious liability if the person who caused the accident was an independent contractor and the employer had no control over their actions.

However, vicarious liability may still apply if the employer failed to carry out due diligence when selecting a contractor, or failed to properly supervise the contractor.

Does vicarious liability apply to criminal acts?

Maybe. If one employee assaulted another in the workplace, the employer may dispute liability on the grounds that the assault was a criminal act by the employee.

Criminal conduct will usually not be considered part of a worker's normal course of employment, and vicarious liability may therefore not apply.

An exception might be a doorman of a pub who is required to sometimes use force as a necessary part of the job.

Removing people from the employer's premises is a part of a doorman's job. If a member of the public claims to have been assaulted by the doorman as they are being thrown out, the employer may be vicariously liable.

Will my employer try and dispute vicarious liability?

Not usually, no. Companies are required by law to have Employers’ Liability Insurance in place to cover the cost of any compensation paid to injured employees.

In the event of a claim, the employer's insurance premium may increase. To avoid a premium increase, an employer might attempt to dispute a claim.

However, in the majority of cases, if an injury was clearly caused by an employee, the insurance company will not dispute liability. It may be more costly to dispute the claim than to reach a compensation settlement.

Can I claim against a former employer?

Yes. Providing the actions took place during your period of employment, you may still bring a claim against your former employer.

Your former employer’s vicarious liability does not end once you leave the company.

Have you been injured at work?

If you have been injured at work in the last 3 years, you may be able to claim financial compensation.

Find out more about making a work accident claim:

  • Do you qualify?
  • How much compensation could you get?
  • How does No Win, No Fee work?
Work accident claim guide