Pastor, Church & Law

Vicarious Liability (Respondeat Superior)

§ 10.02

Key point 10-02. The doctrine of respondeat superior imposes vicarious liability on employers for the negligent acts of their employees committed within the scope of their employment.

Churches are often sued on the basis of respondeat superior for the negligence of church workers. Often, the negligence of church workers is associated with the use of a car, and includes such conduct as excessive speed, disregarding a stop sign or stop light, driving a vehicle with defective brakes, driving a vehicle at night without lights, failing to yield the right of way, or making a turn from an improper lane. While these actions may be intentional, they often are attributable to momentary carelessness or thoughtlessness. Churches also have been sued on the basis of respondeat superior for incidents of sexual molestation committed by a church worker during a church activity.

Why should a church be legally responsible for the negligence of a church worker? After all, the church certainly did not authorize such conduct and ordinarily did not even anticipate that it would occur. Perhaps the most commonly quoted justification for this theory is the following:

What has emerged as the modern justification for vicarious liability is a rule of policy, a deliberate allocation of risk. The losses caused by the torts of employees, which as a practical matter are sure to occur in the conduct of the employer’s enterprise, are placed upon the enterprise itself, as a required cost of doing business. They are placed upon the employer because, having engaged in an enterprise which will, on the basis of all past experience, involve harm to others through torts of employees, and sought to profit by it, it is just that he, rather than the innocent injured plaintiff, should bear them; and because he is better able to absorb them, and to distribute them, through prices, rates or liability insurance, to the public, and so to shift them to society, to the community at large. Added to this is the makeweight argument that an employer who is held strictly liable is under the greatest incentive to be careful in the selection, instruction and supervision of his servants, and to take every precaution to see that the enterprise is conducted safely.27 See generally W. Prosser, THE LAW OF TORTS § 69 (4th ed. 1971). Quoted in Stevens v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Fresno, 123 Cal. Rptr. 171 (Cal. App. 1975).

Some courts have questioned whether this justification can be applied to nonprofit organizations that cannot pass on the costs associated with the inevitable injuries caused by negligent employees through price adjustments.

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is responsible for the injuries caused by its employees only if (1) an employer-employee relationship existed at the time of the injury, (2) the injury was caused by an employee’s negligence, and (3) the employee was acting in the course of his or her employment at the time of the injury. These three elements will be considered individually.

Key point. A church worker whose negligence or misconduct results in injury to another person is not insulated from personal liability by the respondeat superior doctrine. Church workers whose conduct injures other persons in the course of their church duties can be sued directly by injured victims. Often, both the worker and the church are sued.

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