Employers usually think they won’t be held legally responsible for tort claims based on their independent contractors’ work. But there are apparent exceptions to this rule.
Under a common-law principle known as Respondeat Superior, when employers assign their employees any task on behalf of their business, employees owe a legal duty to practice reasonable caution and care when performing their job duties. If employees fail to do so and their actions cause injury to another individual, it can lead to vicarious liability for employers. If negligent employees acted within the scope and course of their employment during the accident that resulted in injury, employers might likewise be held liable.
While courts can hold employers vicariously liable for their employee’s negligent acts, employees will not be automatically responsible for the negligent actions of independent contractors. But there are three specific exceptions to this law:
- Employees could be held vicariously liable for the misconduct of independent contractors if employers were negligent in choosing or retaining the contractors.
- Employers could be held accountable if they assigned non-delegable tasks to the contractors.
- Employers may be liable in the event that the contractors’ work duties involved inherently hazardous tasks.
Negligent Selection and Vicarious Liability
You might not be exempt from vicarious liability for the negligence of an independent contractor if you were negligent in choosing the contractor. Once the independent contractor works for you, you may still be exposed to personal or independent liability rather than vicarious liability if you engage in negligent hiring practices. Hiring an independent contractor doesn’t automatically absolve you of independent negligence if you did not exercise reasonable care in hiring only competent independent contractors who can do the work safely.
Courts will mainly consider these factors when determining whether to hold employers vicariously liable for an accident because they negligently selected the independent contractor:
- Whether an employer did their due diligence and examined the competence, experience, and background of the independent contractor.
- Whether the assigned job duties are within the average or reasonable person’s competence or if they were tasks that can only be performed by individuals with the proper experience, skill, and knowledge.
- The job’s potential risks to which other individuals will be exposed if the independent contractor failed to perform the work properly.
For example, let’s say that you own an apartment building with old wiring that needed repairs. Your friend tells you that he knows someone who can do the work, and you believe your friend. So you contact the contract and hire him to repair the damaged wiring. But the contractor failed to fix the wiring, and his actions caused a massive fire that resulted in several of your tenants sustaining severe injuries.
In this scenario, you may be held vicariously liable for the accident because you did not do a thorough background check on the negligent independent contractor’s competence and experience. As a result, you also technically passed on a non-delegable duty to the contractor, resulting in public harm.
Non-Delegable Duty and Vicarious Liability
You can be held vicariously liable for the misconduct of an independent contractor if you assign the contractor non-delegable tasks, specifically those that involve the welfare and safety of other individuals. For instance, from the example above, property owners have a non-delegable duty to ensure that their properties are reasonably safe at all times.
Specific responsibilities are crucial to public safety that the courts deem them non-delegable duties or tasks, even when independent contractors perform them. This means that employers can be vicariously liable for the contractor’s negligence even if the employer exercised reasonable care.
For example, let’s say that the mayor and the city council hired an independent contractor to repair an old rusty bridge because of evident signs that the foundation is weakening. But the contractor didn’t do the work properly, resulting in the bridge collapsing and killing many people. In this scenario, the city council and the mayor may be held vicariously liable since the faulty bridge repairs endangered public safety.
Other common examples of non-delegable duties include the government’s responsibility to maintain roads and highways, an employer’s obligation to ensure safety in the workplace, and owners of restaurants, shops, and similar businesses to keep their premises reasonably safe for visitors.
Inherently Hazardous Tasks and Vicarious Tort Liability
You may also be held vicariously liable for the negligent acts of an independent contractor if you assign the contractor tasks that entail inherently hazardous activities that can cause harm to other individuals. The reasoning behind this is that given the inherently dangerous nature of the specific job, it’s more likely that damage to others could occur absent appropriate safety measures. Furthermore, it would simply be unconscionable for an employer to be immune to liability for the potential risks associated with inherently dangerous activities merely by shifting or assigning the responsibility to independent contractors.
For instance, the city council hired an independent contractor to perform a fireworks display showcase during the city’s 60th anniversary. Thousands of people are expected to attend the event. Unfortunately, one of the independent contractor’s employees didn’t set up the fireworks display correctly, resulting in some of the fireworks firing into the massive crowd and severely injuring several attendees. In this case, the city council is vicariously liable for the accident since fireworks displays at public venues are inherently hazardous.
Save Yourself from Tort Liability. Call a Virginia Business Lawyer Today
The legal doctrine of vicarious liability law continues to evolve in today’s modern and more complex business environment that it can now be applied, due to certain exceptions, to employer-independent contractor relationships. As a result, it’s now more crucial than ever that employers do their due diligence when hiring independent contractors, or they might be exposing their organization to tort liability.
To learn more about how you can protect your business against tort liability or other business advice, call the Virginia law firm McClanahan Powers at 703-520-1326 or contact us online to schedule a consultation with an attorney.