The principles of respondeat superior, case studies

4 09 2010

No matter what diligence an employer invests in the selection of the best employee for the job, the actions of that employee while employed can legally be reflected onto the employer.  This is known as respondeat superior.  Respondeat superior does not exempt an employee from having a lawsuit filed against them for their behavior; it merely asserts vicarious liability onto the employer for the employee’s actions (Troxell).  This applies to not only physicians employed by a hospital, nurses and medical assistants employed by a physician, but also office personnel in a medical office, as “even though the nonmedical staff may not provide professional services, the [employer] is liable for their conduct” (Kavaler, et al, 223).

In Colorado recently, there was a situation where a surgical technician had stolen a surgical pain medicine and replaced it with used syringes filled with saline, ongoing for a period of several months.  The hospital where she worked is being sued under respondeat superior for permitting this to occur, despite their lack of awareness of the employee’s behaviour.  The lawsuit claims that the hospital “knew or should have known that the public could suffer foreseeable harm if its employees, agents, independent contractors and/or servants, including [the surgical technician], failed to perform their assigned duties in a safe, skillful and competent manner” (Zelinger).  Despite the fact that the employee acted outside of the permissible behavior of employees of the hospital, and showed criminal and negligent behavior, the employer is still liable for those actions.

In Nebraska, the courts hold that the employer is only responsible for the actions of their employees if they are under the directive of the employer or if their behaviors were expected of them in order to benefit their employer.  In the case of Jones v. Region West Pediatric Services, a patient was diagnosed with herpes and office staff members discussed this diagnosis outside of work.  The physician was found not liable for his employee’s behavior because “the employee handbook specifically forbade disclosures of patients’ medical records, and… it is clear that the unauthorized disclosures made by the [employees] were not actuated in any way by a purpose to serve their employer”(  In this example, because the employees participated in an activity that directly violated the expected actions of personnel, the employer is not responsible for their actions; although having a policy that prohibits a specific behavior doesn’t offer the physician immunity from liability.

In a physician’s office, the liability of my employer would depend on the degree of my negligent or criminal behavior.  The courts would review the scope of my employment, which includes the time of my employment, the place, whether my activities were done in any way to benefit my employer, and whether or not my employer could have had any idea I might behave in such a manner (Hollowell, 68).  If my behaviour was such that it could have been prevented through established protocols, such as in the Colorado case, then there would be a level of liability on my employer for my actions.  However, as demonstrated in the Nebraska court case, if my actions are not ones in which my employer could have reasonably prevented and were expressly prohibited through the employer’s policy manual, then they would likely not found liable under respondeat superior.

Works Cited

Hollowell, Edward E. “Liability for Employees’ Intentional Torts: A Growing Concern for Hospitals.”Hospital Law Review (1984): 68-79. Google Docs. Web. 8 Sept. 2010. <;.

Justin JONES, Appellant, v. Steven BAISCH, M.D.; Region West Pediatric Services, P.C., a Professional Corporation, Appellees. United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit. 24 Oct. 1994. Web. 6 Sept. 2010. <;.

Kavaler, Florence, and Allen D. Spiegel. Risk Management in Health Care Institutions: a Strategic Approach. Second ed. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett, 2003. Google Books. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. Web. 78 Sept. 2010. <;.

Troxell, Martha A. “Respondeat Superior.” Eberly College of Business, 2007. Web. 8 Sept. 2010. <;.

Zelinger, Marshall. “Hepatitis C Lawsuit Filed Against Rose, Anesthesiologist – Denver News Story – KMGH Denver.” Denver News. 2 May 2010. Web. 7 Sept. 2010. <;.





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