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What Is Vicarious Liability and How Does It Apply to Personal Injury Law?

By Stewart J. Guss on August 30th, 2019 houston truck accident lawyer - Stewart J. Guss, Injury Accident Attorneys

In personal injury claims, liability is one of the most important issues. If negligence is proven and someone is deemed liable, compensation could be rewarded for sustained damages. Liability is particularly relevant in auto accidents, where one person is clearly at fault and caused damage to another person’s property. 

Oftentimes in auto accidents, one of the present parties is liable. However, not every case is black and white. In some cases, a third party may be liable, even if they weren’t present for the accident. This is called “vicarious liability.” 

In auto accidents, vicarious liability is most often associated with commercial drivers — those operating a semi-truck or delivery vehicle on behalf of another company. For example, Texas is seeing an influx of trucking accidents, as reported by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Truckers have a financial incentive to drive fast, and their companies can reap financial benefits as well. This leads to negligent driving and can cause serious accidents. In order to be compensated, a truck accident attorney can help navigate the complexities of these cases as it pertains to vicarious liability. 

Defining Our Terms: The Legal Meaning of “Vicarious” and “Liable”

To better understand vicarious liability, the term can be dissected into two parts:

Vicarious

Vicarious is defined as “serving instead of someone or something else.” For instance, the adage “living vicariously through someone else” means to want to live their experiences instead of one’s own. In personal injury claims, it means that someone caused negligence without being present.

Liable

Liable means to be held responsible. It is an important issue in many legal cases, especially car and truck accidents. Liability disputes often come up in truck accident cases when there’s another vehicle involved, bad weather, or a mechanical malfunction in the truck.

Vicarious Liability Law

There are two instances that are commonly associated with vicarious liability law. 

Employer and Employee Contexts

Employers can be held responsible for their employee’s actions if the action transpired during employment.

In 2014, comedian Tracy Morgan sued Walmart because one of their truck drivers crashed into his limo, causing Morgan to endure a two-week coma. The driver was going 20 miles over the speed limit and was almost at his drive time limit, deeming the driver negligent. Instead of suing the driver, Morgan decided to sue Walmart because his team felt that Walmart was ultimately responsible for the accident that was caused by the driver’s negligence. 

A fast-food restaurant could be held liable if an employee spilled hot coffee on a diner. But employers can be liable for accidents that don’t occur on-site as well.

Commercial truck accidents often involve a driver who is employed by the trucking company. The company may be held responsible for the employee’s behavior, even though the accident does not occur on the employer’s premises. Truck drivers are still acting under the control of the company, which makes them the company’s responsibility.

Parent and Child Contexts

Much like the relationship between an employer and their employees, parents can be deemed responsible for their children’s actions. In 2011, William Burnett, an assistant professor at Stanford University, was arrested on suspicion of allowing teenagers to drink at his house.

Each state has its own set of rules for parental liability. In Texas, for example, a parent is liable for property damage if the child’s conduct proves the parent was negligent. For example, if Burnett lived in Texas, he would have been liable for damages caused by teenagers if they drove while intoxicated.

Vicarious Liability in Semi-Truck Accidents

Truck accidents have a high potential for vicarious liability. The FMCSA states about 415,000 reported crashes involved large trucks in one year. Sometimes, the truck driver is an independent contractor and is the only person liable. Other times, the driver works for a company, who can be held liable for the driver’s actions. The FMCSA enforces a variety of rules for commercial vehicles and their companies, including:

  • Licensing and training;
  • Approved medical conditions;
  • Strict rules on the number of driving hours;
  • Intoxicated driving;
  • Distracted driving;
  • Truck inspections;
  • And the size and weight. 

Most companies work with insurance agencies, who more often than not will try to dispute liability because they do not want to pay the personal injury costs caused by negligence. This is why it is important to have experienced injury attorneys representing those injured — to ensure liability is assigned appropriately and damages are paid expediently.

A truck driver can display negligence by:

  • Breaking the law;
  • Distracted driving;
  • Driving while intoxicated (DWI);
  • Cutting curves too sharply;
  • Fatigue;
  • Abrupt lane changes;
  • Failing to assess road and weather conditions;
  • And disobeying the state and federal motor carrier regulations.

According to the American Bar Association, drivers are held to reasonable care standards at any time they are on the road; the same goes for truck drivers. If truckers displayed negligence, they could have violated the applicable standard of care which can only be proven when a legal case is filed. 

Vicarious Liability in Other Auto Accidents

Vicarious liability depends on whether there’s a separate party responsible for the actions of an individual. Employers, parents, and members of a conspiracy face vicarious liability.

The Pinkerton Rule was created in 1946. Two brothers, Walter and Daniel, were charged with violations of tax fraud. They allegedly committed conspiracy and a jury found both guilty, yet there was no evidence of Daniel’s direct involvement. The Supreme Court ruled that because he had knowledge of the crime and did not withdraw from the conspiracy, Daniel was responsible — or vicariously liable. 

Similar to aiding and abetting, the Pinkerton Rule clearly states a conspiracy must be present while “aiding and abetting” is a broad term that includes anyone who knows of a criminal act. 

In a different example from 2016, two women filed claims against Uber, alleging the drivers sexually assaulted them while using the ride-sharing app. A San Francisco judge ruled that Uber was responsible for their drivers, even though Uber classifies them as contractors. While it may be lucrative to treat drivers as contractors, the plaintiffs argued that Uber uses the business model to “distance itself from liability,” and allows for a “willful blindness” in hiring drivers. 

Recreational vehicle (RV) accidents are another example where vicarious liability may apply. Texas law requires RV drivers to own a class A or Class B license, but this is not the case in every state. Many drivers from out-of-state are not qualified to drive oversized vehicles and can cause severe accidents. If an unqualified driver borrowed an RV, then the owners of the RV could be held liable if the driver were to cause an accident. 

RV accidents include:

  • Rollovers;
  • Rear-end accidents;
  • Blowouts;
  • Sideswipe accidents;
  • And improperly secured equipment. 

Although RVs can vary in size and weight, many are comparable in size to 18-wheelers, and they can cause just as much damage. 

Damages for Which the Vicarious Party Is Liable

Parties liable can be left to take care of monetary damages. This includes:

  • Medical bills;
  • Lost wages;
  • Pain and suffering;
  • Funeral costs;
  • And other damages that resulted in the crash. 

Vicarious liability can play a big role in trucking accidents and other auto accidents. Because so many parties can be held liable in a trucking accident, it’s important to hire legal aid with resources to help determine who is liable.

Need help choosing a truck accident lawyer? Contact the experienced legal team of Stewart J. Guss to handle your case — available 24 hours, seven days a week.

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