The article 'Doctrine of Respondeat Superior' elucidates the concept of vicarious liability and its importance in the law of contract and tort.

The article 'Doctrine of Respondeat Superior' elucidates the concept of vicarious liability and its importance in the law of contract and tort. It talks about the relevance of the doctrine in deciding the case at hand by the courts. The article also provides an interpretation of the doctrine. The author feels it necessary to mention what has been said by Salmond i.e., a liability is the bond of necessity that exists between the wrongdoer and the remedy of the wrong’.Introduction The...

The article 'Doctrine of Respondeat Superior' elucidates the concept of vicarious liability and its importance in the law of contract and tort. It talks about the relevance of the doctrine in deciding the case at hand by the courts. The article also provides an interpretation of the doctrine. The author feels it necessary to mention what has been said by Salmond i.e., a liability is the bond of necessity that exists between the wrongdoer and the remedy of the wrong’.


The main focus of civil law is liability. Liability generally divides into many types. Liability in civil proceedings can be viewed as the enforcement of the plaintiff's right against the defendant. Civil liability is also referred to as corrective liability. The Latin proverb "Ubi jus ibi remedium," which means "where there is a right, there must be some remedy," served as the foundation for this law. Because it targets and concentrates on defending the plaintiff's rights rather than only punishing the defendant, it is called a corrective action. In criminal accountability, the wrongdoer must make restitution or submit to the punishment outlined by the law, which is enforced by courts acting as its representative. Penal responsibility is the name given to this type of liability. It primarily seeks to punish.

Vicarious Liability

According to Lord Chelmsford

“It has long been established by law that a master is liable to third persons for any injury or damage done through the negligence or unskillfulness of a servant acting in his master’s employ. The reason for this is, that every act which is done by the servant in the course of his duty is regarded as done by his master’s order, and, consequently, it is the same as if it were master’s own act”.

A legal theory of culpability called vicarious liability, commonly referred to as joint responsibility liability, allows the court to hold a person accountable for the deeds of another. According to this idea, a person may be held vicariously accountable for the crimes committed by others even though they only indirectly assisted the criminal activity, such as by aiding and abetting it.

In the sphere of civil law, such as in employment matters, this frequently happens. Vicarious liability is a type of liability that places responsibility on someone who did not directly do the harm but has a legal connection to the person who did. These legal connections could exist between a parent and a kid, an employer and a worker, a master and a servant, etc.

It falls under the category of secondary liability and is occasionally referred to as "imputed negligence." The master is held vicariously liable for the actions of his servant that are performed in the course of employment. Judges have assisted in the development of vicarious liability. Still, the fundamental tenet of such liability is that the employer, on whose orders the employee committed the conduct, has much greater financial resources than the employee to cover the costs of damages.

Two important legal maxims revolve around the concept of vicarious liability. They are:

  • ‘Qui Facit Per Alium Facit Per Se’: “let the principal be held responsible” or “let the superior make the answer”. It is the principle in tort law holding an employer liable for the employee’s/ agent’s wrongful acts committed within the scope of employment of the agency.
  • ‘Respondeat Superior’: Every act which is done by a servant in the course of his duty is regarded as done by his master’s order, and consequently, it is the same as if it was the master's own act. If A is doing for X. It will be considered as X himself is doing the act himself and thus is also made liable for the act of A.

What is the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior?

Respondeat superior, a legal principle, first appeared millennia ago. It was first used to make the household's head accountable for the actions of the slaves and servants. Judges started using respondeat superior to remote economic connections, such as the ongoing relationship between a ship's owner and crew, during the close of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries. The courts started extending the scope of this theory and applying it to various business-related conduct in addition to those that were expressly required. Respondeat superior became more prevalent at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and even independent contractors were subject to liability if a detrimental act was committed.

The Latin adage "Respondeat Superior," which translates to "Let the master answer," describes the idea. According to this legal principle, when an employee acts in the course of their employment, the employer is liable for those activities. By placing the liability on the employer, responsibility or accountability is imposed. This approach helps both the employee and the damaged party since it shifts responsibility from the employee to the employer, who is thought to be better able to cover losses than the employee. This adage places a strong emphasis on the master-servant or "superior-subordinate" relationship. Establishing a "superior-subordinate" relationship between the employee and the employer who gives the employee his or her orders is important for the application of this principle. There are two requirements of the doctrine:

  1. A true master-servant and employer-employee relationship must be there so that a master and an employer may be properly charged with the servant’s and the employee’s act as his own.
  2. The tortious act of a servant and an employee must be one within the scope of his employment. Here, ‘scope of employment’ implies that the act is done with the express or implied authority of the superiors.

Essential Ingredients of the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior

Through the use of this maxim, an employee cannot only attempt to be shielded from having to make restitution or face liability. For "respondeat superior" to be used without difficulty, two conditions must be established. First and foremost, it is crucial to establish a true employee-employer or master-servant relationship in order to prove that the servant or employee was the one who committed the wrongdoing. Second, the tortious act must have been committed within the scope of employment. It is important to remember that a master or employee is also liable for any torts committed by a servant while performing work-related duties, in addition to any actions that he expressly allows. Following are the essential ingredients of the doctrine:

1. Relation: There should be some or the other relationship between the wrongdoer and the person who gave the order. Relationships can be that of Master-Servant, Principle-Agent, Independent Contractors and alike.

Test for Determination of Relationship: The "control" test used to establish the relationship between "master and servant" has gone out of favour in recent years due to the advancement of science and technology, and it cannot be applied rigidly in every circumstance. When it applies, the right of control still plays a significant role in determining whether a master-servant relationship exists, but it is not the only consideration to be considered. Recently, the hiring and firing process has become increasingly significant.[1]  It implies that if a worker or a servant engages in any prohibited behaviour, they may be fired. Therefore, in addition to power, what distinguishes a master-servant relationship from that of an independent contractor is that the servant may be fired from his job if he engages in behaviour that is against organizational policies.[2]

2. Ratification: According to tort law, there are three ways that a person can be held accountable for the wrongdoings or omissions of another. As having ratified or allowed the specific act in full awareness that it was tortious; as having a relationship with the other party that entails accountability for the wrongs perpetrated by that party; and as having assisted in the wrongdoing of others. Any two or more people can be in a relationship during ratification; only master-servant relationships are not required.

3. Course of Employment: An act is deemed to have been performed in the course of employment if it is either an unlawful act authorised by the master, such as giving authority to perform work to an unauthorised person or an unlawful and unauthorised manner in which the master has authorised the servant to perform an unlawful act.[3]

In S.S. Manufacturing Co. v. Bai Valu Raja[4], the Court laid down the following propositions in connection with the construction of the expression ‘in the course of employment’. They are:

(i) as a rule, the employment of a workman does not commence until he has reached the place of employment and does not continue when he has left the place of employment;

(ii) as a rule the journey to and from the place of employment is not included within the expression ‘in the course of employment

(iii) the aforesaid two positions are subject to the theory of notional extension of the employers’ premises so as to include the area which the workman passes and re-passes in going to and in leaving the actual place of work; there may be some reasonable extension in both time and place and a workman may be regarded as in the course of his employment even though he had not reached or had left his employers’ premises;

(iv) the facts and circumstances of each case will have to be examined very carefully in order to determine whether the accident arose within and in the course of employment keeping in view at all times, the theory of notional extension. On the basis of the first two propositions, the deceased cannot be said to have received the injuries in an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment.

In Mackinnon. Mackenzie & Co. (P). Ltd. v. Ibrahim Mahammad. Issak[5], the Court held the accident injury must occur both during and as a result of employment for it to be covered by the Act. The phrase "in the course of the employment" refers to work that is ancillary to the work that the employee is hired to undertake. The phrase "arising out of employment" is interpreted to suggest that during the course of employment, an injury has come from some risk incidental to the responsibilities of the service, which it is fair to assume the workman would not have endured absent engagement in the obligation owed to the master. In other words, there needs to be a connection between employment and the accident. Once more, the phrase "arising out of employment" does not only refer to the job itself.

The phrase refers to employment as such, including its characteristics, demands, and occurrences. If one of those causes places the worker in a unique danger zone, the harm would be one that results from employment. To put it another way, if a risk associated with employment was the cause of the accident, the worker's claim for compensation must be successful unless he or she intentionally exposed themselves to additional danger.

What determines the Employee and Employer relationship?

When wrongdoing is approved by the master or is carried out in an unlawful and unauthorised manner, the act is said to have been performed in the course of employment. However, we must delve further into what creates such a tie in order to comprehend the liability in such situations. In order to determine this relationship, certain tests have developed. The "hire and fire" test has become more significant in the present. It determines whether an employer has the authority to employ and dismiss workers. If he has such power, he would be responsible for the actions of his staff.[6]  Another test that has become extinct now is the ‘control test’. The case of Cassidy v. Ministry of Health[7] 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

Whether this legal theory would apply in the event of both negligent and intentional torts is a crucial point that needs to be addressed. This question can be answered in the affirmative. In a negligent tort or act, it is presumed that the employer either offered the employee the necessary direction or liberty to complete the task, with the option to restructure those decisions if the employer wasn't happy with their outcome. Therefore, if the employees used the autonomy granted by the employer yet made poor decisions, the employer would be held accountable.

On the other hand, the court is less inclined to award damages for willful conduct or torts. Employers expect that employees would not intentionally harm their clients, and if they do, they are presumed to have acted independently rather than on behalf of the company. However, if it is established that the employer approved of such intentional behaviour, the employer would be held accountable. It's important to remember that even if an employer hires a tortfeasor who has a history of committing certain crimes and the employee is irresponsible, the company could still be held liable.

Case Laws

1. Pushpabai Parshottam Udeshi & Ors. v. M/s Ranjit Ginning & Pressing Co. Pvt. Ltd. & Anr.[8]

It has been held that when an act is committed by a driver in the course of employment or under the authority of the master, the liability would be that of the master.

2. Lloyd v. Grace Smith & Co.[9]

Ms. Lloyd in this situation, was the owner of two properties. She called the law company of Grace, Smith & Co. to talk with them since she was unhappy with the rent she was getting from the property. She was urged to sell the cottages and execute two sale papers for the purpose by the firm's managing clerk. She put her signature on the fictitious "selling deeds," which were actually gift deeds in favour of the managing clerk. The House of Lords unanimously decided that even if the managing clerk was acting fraudulently for his own gain and the firm was unaware of the deception, they would still be held liable because he was working within the scope of his apparent or ostensible power. According to the ruling, even if a servant acts in the course of business for his or her own advantage rather than the master's, the master will still be held accountable.

3. State of Maharashtra and others v. Kanchanmala Vijaysing Shirke & Ors.[10]

The Lordships decided that the State cannot avoid its vicarious responsibility to compensate the victim's heirs when a clerk in a government department was operating a vehicle under the supervision of the driver at the time of an accident and the vehicle was being used for official business.

4. Sitaram Motilal Kalal v. Santanuprasad Jaishanker Bhatt[11]

It has been held that the law is well settled that a master is vicariously liable for the acts of his servant acting in the course of his employment. Unless the act is done in the course of employment, the servant’s act does not make the employer liable.

5. Morris v. C.W. Martin & Sons[12]

C.W. Martin & Sons in this instance served as the bailees for a coat that was given to them for cleaning. Their housekeeper Morrisey received the coat to clean. The coat was taken by the butler. The Court of Appeal determined that the servant's theft of the coat was an illegal act committed while doing his or her duties and that the defendants, who served as the servant's master, may be held accountable. According to the ruling, the employers would be liable for the employee's activities if they were committed while he was working because they had given him the responsibility for the work. It would’ve been a different scenario if the goods in possession of the master by way of bailment were stolen by a servant to whom the goods had not been entrusted.

6. Automobiles Transport v. Dewalal & Ors.[13]

The Rajasthan High Court ruled that the automobile transportation firm is responsible for the acts committed by the employee's servant while doing their duties. It is up to the appellant to establish that the presumption that the vehicle is being operated at the master's direction or by his authorised agent or servant is unjustified and unsupported. The appellant's claim that the driver was not instructed to take a specific route did not persuade their lordship because it is absurd at best, as one wouldn't anticipate. For instance, the driver was instructed to wait if a certain way was blocked and not proceed in the opposite direction to complete his or her task, even though the situation would be quite different if the road was clear. Failure to establish such a need would subject the appellant to culpability under the respondeat superior doctrine as well as the vicarious liability concept.

7. Poland v. Parr & Sons[14]

In this instance, carter mistakenly thought that three lads were stealing sugar from the waggon of his employer. He hit one of the youngsters to defend the sugar. The boy subsequently collapsed and was struck by the waggon. He had lost a leg. Despite being extreme, carter's actions were not deemed to be outside the scope of his position, according to some reports. Thus, the employer becomes responsible. It was decided that the servant has an implied duty to safeguard his master's property. The employer would be held accountable if excessive force was used to perform this responsibility while the employee was on the job.

8. Criminal Justice Society v. Union of India[15]

According to the Delhi High Court, even if the negligent conduct was delegated to an independent contractor as a result of poor management that resulted in a citizen's death or injury, the Municipal Corporation is still responsible. The wife of a deceased man sought compensation from the High Court in a decision written by its Chief Justice Dipak Mishra regarding the deceased's accidental death brought on by a fall in a pit on a divider that was supposed to be covered (but was not so done) by a barricade with warning signs intended for pedestrians by the contractor.

9. Century Insurance Co. v. Northern Ireland Road Transport Board[16]

In this case, the petrol lorry driver was performing labour for his company. In the course of his work, the driver once threw a match he had used to light a cigarette on the ground as he was moving gasoline from the truck to an underground tank. L's property was harmed as a result of the ensuing fire and explosion. The court held that even though the driver lit the match for his own amusement, it would still be regarded as a negligent way to carry out the task at hand. Therefore, since the action was taken while he was working, the employers were responsible for the driver's carelessness. It was held that 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.

10. Smt. Savita Garg v. The Director, National Heart Institute[17]

According to the Supreme Court, if the hospital is unable to convince the court and the complainant that there was no negligence or recklessness on their part and that they acted with due care and caution, then they are responsible under the terms of the employment contract for the actions of the agent, which in this case is one of its doctors. Since the hospital is in a better position to provide this information when asked about what medication was delivered, their failure to do so would make them responsible. If there was a genuine error, the liability in cases of medical negligence might be avoided by the fact that people make mistakes all the time. A mistake or act of neglect, however, cannot be excused.


Since the beginning of time, vicarious liability has been used. It would be accurate to argue that, at least in the near term, the Respondeat Superior doctrine would not disappear. This has been used as a defence by employees to avoid having to pay exorbitant damages. However, if an employee commits a crime while acting outside the scope of their work, the employer may avoid paying substantial fines and being held responsible for the crime. Therefore, it is crucial to establish not only the relationship between the genuine perpetrator and the person being held liable for his violation, but also whether the behaviour was carried out outside or during the course of employment when using the Respondeat Superior doctrine. The courts must make sure that this rule is applied consistently. Such minutiae must not be disregarded by the courts in order to ensure justice and prevent holding an innocent person responsible for someone else's omission or commission.


[1] Union of India v. Abdul Rehman and Ors., AIR 1981 J K 60

[2] Shubham Khunteta, Doctrine of Respondeat Superior: A Legal Interpretation, Available Here 

[3] Dr Janardan Kumar Tiwari, Vicarious Liability- Liability For Wrong Committed By Others, Available Here

[4] AIR 1958 SC 881

[5] AIR 1970 SC 1906

[6] Aayushi Mittra, Doctrine of Respondeat Superior, Available Here

[7] (1951) 2 KB 343

[8] AIR 1977 SC 1735

[9] (1912) AC 716

[10] AIR 1995 SC 2499

[11] AIR 1966 SC 1697

[12] (1966) 1 Q.B. 716

[13] AIR 1977 Raj 121

[14] (1927) 1 K.B. 23

[15] AIR 2010 Del 194.

[16] (1942) A.C. 509

[17] (2004) 8 SCC 56

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Updated On 12 Jan 2023 7:35 AM GMT
Vanshika Malhotra

Vanshika Malhotra

I am a hard-working and motivated law fresher with a firm determination to produce exceptional results, be it individually or in a team. I am currently gaining post-qualification experience in IPR. Along with that, I am also an aspiring NCA candidate.

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