WHAT IS THE LEGAL DOCTRINE OF RESPONDEAT SUPERIOR?

 


I recall the discussion of respondeat superior in law school and examples. It is obviously a Latin term and means, “that the master must answer”. The rule was first found in England and later the doctrine became a part of law in the United States. It can be used for both civil and criminal acts. In a civil sense I think of it as being useful when an employee wrongs a client or patient then the employer is liable if the act by the employee fell within the scope of their employment. As an example, say an overworked nurse at a hospital decided to not perform certain duties in order that other “more visible” duties could be performed and the neglect of a patient or patients caused permanent injury or death, then that nurse may end up being criminally liable or negligent in a civil sense. That nurse might go to jail based on some felony charge or be sued. So let’s say a lawsuit against the nurse is successful. Maybe the nurse makes $60,000.00 per year and the hospital has a $1,000,000 malpractice liability policy on her or him. The successful recovery for monetary damages will certainly help the injured patient or the decedent’s family but after court costs and attorney fees and after such an intense trial there may not be a significant amount of money available when one considers lost income to the patient or family maybe for potential decades and health care costs that may be borne by a family over many years for their care. Looking further into the case was the nurse overworked because of hospital policies? Did the hospital purposely keep their staffing low for their profit margin? So many questions to ask. But was the hospital responsible for putting the nurse in that position because of policies and directives from administration? If so then one may reasonably conclude that the hospital also carries liability. Instead of recovering from a $60,000 per year nurse with a $1 million liability policy now you may have a hospital that makes millions of dollars every year with significantly higher liability limits. So, if the plaintiff’s attorney can prove the nurse was acting in the line of duty for his or her employer then the hospital shares in the liability as well as a much larger award for the injured patient or decedent’s family. I recall the examples in law school involving an employee driving a truck for a company and that truck is involved in an accident in which it is their fault. The plaintiff’s attorney or prosecutor will look at whether the employee driver was performing duties in their normal course of employment when the accident occurred. If that is the case then the legal theory of respondeat superior may well be used. But what if employee driver instead of going from point A to point B took a detour for a personal reason, not in the scope of their employment and had an accident? I would say employer may well be able to defeat such a claim and may well sue employee driver for their negligence and damages caused to the employer owned truck, lost revenue, cost of defending the company during the original lawsuit, etc. The Alabama Supreme Court heard a case late last year, Sunitha Rani Madasu

v. Shoals Radiology Associates, P.C. Sunitha Madasu went to an emergency room with “severe headache, nausea and vomiting”. The ER physician ordered a CT scan of the brain which was read by Dr. Donald Bowling, a radiologist who interpreted the scan as normal. Three days after the ER visit Madasu had a severe seizure that left her partially paralyzed. In fact, she had multiple blood clots in her brain that Dr. Bowling did not report. Madasu sued Dr. Bowling as well as Shoals Radiology Associates, PC (Shoals) and Lauderdale Radiology Group, LLP (Lauderdale). The subject of this appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court arises from the trial level in which the Lauderdale Circuit Court ruled that Shoals was not liable for Dr. Bowling’s error. Madasu now appeals the ruling for Shoals. Bowling was an employee of Shoals but was not acting on behalf of Shoals as Lauderdale had the radiologist services contract with the hospital which Madasu had visited. The Shoals and Lauderdale groups had contracts with different hospitals and even had agreement among its radiologists that they would not work for the other. If a radiologist worked for another group it was expected that their employer group, Shoals or Lauderdale would receive the money. In violation of the contract, Bowling made an oral agreement to “moonlight” for Lauderdale. Apparently, Shoals did not contest what Bowling was doing and allowed him to keep the money he made. Both Shoals and Lauderdale moved for Summary Judgment. Shoals said that Bowling was not acting as their employee at the other hospital in which Madasu was seen since they had no professional relationship there and Lauderdale argued that Bowling was an independent contractor and not an employee of theirs. Madasu’s argument was “under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is liable for an employee’s acts whenever those acts were undertaken “either ‘(1) “in the line and scope of his employment” or (2) “in furtherance of the business of [the employer].” Further Madasu argued that even though Shoals did not expect to be paid the money that Bowling earned it could have via the employee contract and therefore the business could have obtained a benefit. Shoals looked the other way when Bowling was paid by Lauderdale and never expected to benefit for something not under their control. After extensive analysis by the Supreme Court, including whether lies were told the Court agreed unanimously with the Circuit Court as to their ruling that Shoals was not liable under the theory of respondeat superior. This article is informative only and not meant to be all inclusive. Additionally this article does not serve as legal advice to the reader and does not constitute an attorney- client relationship. The reader should seek counsel from their attorney should any questions exist. “No representation is made that the quality of legal services performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.” Mailing address: Ronald A. Holtsford, Esq. Ronald A. Holtsford, LLC 7956 Vaughn Road, Box #124 Montgomery, AL 36116 (334) 220-3700 raholtsford@aol.com

 

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