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Vicarious Liability Under Torts

Law imposes certain duties upon its citizens. A breach of these duties is a wrongful act. When a person breaches duty imposed by civil law in contrast to criminal law or civil wrongs such as breach of contract or breach of trust, he commits a breach of Tort law. Tort is primarily a civil wrong, a breach of general legal rights vested in another.

In the common course of law, a person who commits the crime, serves the time. However, there are some exceptions to this general rule, one of which is the common law concept of vicarious liability. The term vicarious is derived from the Latin term "vice" meaning in place of. Etymologically, vicarious liability means 'liability instead' i.e. liability incurred by one yet suffered or discharged by another. The term 'vicar' is the cognate of vice and means "in the person of" or a substitute.

In the eyes of law, a man can not be held liable for the acts of another, he would only be held liable for the torts or wrongful acts committed by him. Under certain circumstances however, a person can be held liable to discharge the liability of another. When a person discharges liability of another under such circumstances, then he is said to incur a vicarious liability. Vicarious liability imposes liability on a person other than the wrongdoer is also known as imputed liability.

It occurs when:
  1. A wrongful/ tortious act or omission is committed by one person
  2. There exists a relationship of control between the wrongdoer and the tortfeasor
  3. When such an act or omission is directly related to the said relationship.

There can be enumerated 3 kinds of relationships, where the concept of vicarious liability can be imposed, namely:

  1. The relationship between an Agent and the Principal:

    The agent and the principal share a fiduciary relationship i.e. a relationship based on trust. In this relationship, the principal employs the agent and authorises him to act on his behalf and discharge duties that have been imputed upon him by the principal. The person who is authorised to act as such is the agent.

    The authorisation of the principal can be expressed or implied. If the agent commits a tort in the due course of his employment or in discharge of his duties, liability can also be imputed upon the principal who authorised such an act in the first place.

    Here, the principal stands in a position of power and control over his agent. Therefore, both the agent and the principal are joint tortfeasors and their liability is joint and several. The plaintiff has the right to sue both or either.

    In, State Bank of India v. Shyama Devi,
    The plaintiff's husband had handed over cheques to be deposited in his account to a friend who was an employee of the defendant bank. No receipts of the deposits were collected and the friend misappropriated the amount. It was held by the Court that the employee was not acting in his scope of bank employment but as a depositor's friend when he committed the fraud. Therefore, the defendant bank could not be held liable by vicarious liability.
  2. The relationship between a master and his servant:

    It is a general rule of law, that if a master authorises or orders certain acts to be performed by his servant, then the master must be held liable for any tort that the servant commits. Again, here the master stands in a position of control or authority over the servant who works under his supervision. The master's liability arises because he enjoys the benefit of acts done by his servant.

    However, for the master to be made liable for the acts of his servant the following essentials must be fulfilled:
    • The tort was committed by the servant. The servant is a person employed to fulfill all the duties delegated by his master.
    • The servant committed the tort in the "course of employment." An act is said to be in the course of employment when the wrongful act is expressly authorised by the master or if it is a wrongful or unauthorised mode of performing an act authorised by the master.
    It is pertinent to note that this liability arises even when the servant acted against the express instructions and for no benefit of his master. Like in the agent and principal relationship, the liability of the master and servant is joint and several and both are joint tortfeasors.

    However, in cases where a servant acts outside the course of his employment, the master can not be made liable for his acts merely because he would not have had the opportunity to perform such an act but for being in the master's service.

    Similarly, the master cannot be held liable for the wrongful acts of an independent contractor hired by him. Like a servant, an independent contractor undertakes to complete a task of its employer however, unlike a servant, he is not under the supervision or control of his employer and can use independent discretion in discharge of his duties.

    Traditionally, the test to determine the difference between a servant and an independent contractor used to be the "control test". However, modern authorities apply the "hire and fire" test i.e. to check if a person is the pay master of another and has the right to fire his employee.
  3. Liability of partners:

    The relationship between partners is that of a principal and agent and the rules of agency also apply to them. All actors in a partnership act on behalf of each other while representing themselves as a collective. These partnerships can take forms of firms, companies, a trustee or even a Karta representing a Hindu joint family. Therefore, a partner can be held vicariously liable for a wrongful or negligent act by another partner under the rules enumerated in Indian Partnership Act, 1935.

    In Hamlyn v Houston & Co. one of the partners of the form, acting within the scope of his authority, attempted to bribe the clerk of the plaintiff to induce him to commit a breach of his employment contract. It was held by the court that the other partner can be held vicariously liable for a tort committed by one of the partners.

Liability of the state:

For decades now, the powers and functions of state have expanded considerably. There has been substantial change from the traditional laissez faire policies to recognition of state as welfare state. It is also a popular saying that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Therefore, a check on the state powers to ensure its accountability in circumstances of violation of common legal rights of citizens by state employed actors is an essential requirement. This requirement has been fulfilled by Article 300 of the Indian Constitution which provides that the Union of India and the States are juristic persons for the purpose of any suit or proceedings and as such can sue or be sued in their name.

Before the coming of the Indian Constitution as it stands presently, there was a brief mention of the liability of the state under Section 65 of The Government of India Act ,1858. The concept of imputation of vicarious liability upon the state is essential for the performance of its basic duty of protection of its citizens. If it wasn't for such provisions, no doctors in a government hospital or no police officers could have been held liable for any malicious or wrongful acts.

Basis and justification of the concept of Vicarious Liability

The concept of vicarious liability finds its roots in the following Latin maxims -- "Quit facit per aliumfacit per se"

Literally means, " he who does an act through another is deemed in law to do it himself". This maxim is applicable in the master-servant and Principal-agent relationships because one of the actors in the relationship is employed by another specifically to Act on their behalf or perform certain specified acts. Because they enjoy the benefits of acts of another, they are also liable to accept any liabilities that may ensue in the performance of such acts.

Respondeat superior
Literally means, "let the superior be liable." Here again, the master and the principle enjoy a position of power and control whereby they can dictate or authorise performance of an act. In these cases, because they hold a position of superiority, they can be held vicariously liable for the acts of their employees.

Although these maxims elaborate upon the principle and can be said to form its basis yet, they can not dictate the law itself. These ideas must be combined with policy considerations to give material results.

The doctrine also finds its justification in the following reasons:

  1. The presumption that any person employing another on his behalf has "deep pockets" and therefore, can be held liable as a substitute to the actual wrongdoer to satisfy the claims of one who has been wronged. For example, in a master servant relationship, the master may be able to satisfy a claim because of his larger pockets or his claim in insurance.
  2. Since the master has a potential financial concern, he will ensure absolute safety and care for his employees and for others.
  3. Since one enjoys the fruits of labour of another, he must also be held liable for any loss caused. He can not be allowed to accept the benefit and reject the burden of his labour.

Vicarious liability imposes liability on a person who is not personally responsible for any tortious wrong. It can be understood as a strict liability on the employer for the acts of his employees. The concept is certainly beneficial for the victim or the plaintiff in order to get claim and compensation for any damage caused to him.

Yet, this liability also imposes an unreal burden on the employer to fulfill the liabilities incurred by another, even when such an act could be potentially malicious in nature. It also poses problems pertaining to the scope of one's employment, a potentially indirect authorisation and the lack of certainty of intention on behalf of the tortfeasor or wrong doer.

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