When one person’s misconduct injures someone else, that person typically bears sole financial responsibility for the injury. However, when vicarious liability applies, Texas will hold a third party liable for someone else’s misconduct. This misconduct can consist of a forbidden act or a failure to act when action is required.
In a personal injury claim involving vicarious liability, the accident victim can win their claim against the third party without proving that the third party personally committed any form of negligence. Furthermore, the third party can face liability even if they were not present at the scene of the accident.
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Relationships That Can Invoke Vicarious Liability
Texas law imposes vicarious liability on three different types of relationships:
- Employer / employee
- Parent / minor child
- Alcohol vendor / customer
Texas also recognizes other forms of vicarious liability, but they are less common. Ultimately, vicarious liability is the exception rather than the rule under Texas personal injury law.
Employer / Employee Vicarious Liability
Texas law holds employers liable for the consequences of their employee’s misconduct under the doctrine of respondeat superior, provided that the employee was acting within the scope of employment when they committed the misconduct. The employer may escape liability if their employee, despite being on duty at the time of the accident, was not acting within the scope of their duties.
One example of such liability is when an employee is entrusted with the use of their employer’s vehicle and causes a car accident. An injured victim of the accident can file a lawsuit against both the employee and the employer, assuming that the employee was acting in the course of their duties at the time of the accident. If the victim died, a wrongful death lawsuit may be filed.
Vicarious Liability and the “Deep-Pockets” Strategy
Imagine the consequences if an accident victim suffered a catastrophic injury due to the misconduct of a pizza delivery driver making minimum wage. Since the driver could not afford to pay a large claim, it would make sense to sue the employer. One purpose of vicarious liability is to find a “deep-pockets” defendant who can afford to (and is able to) pay a large personal injury claim.
The Independent Contractor Exception
One important exception to the vicarious liability faced by an employer is the independent contractor exception. To hold an employer liable, the person who committed the misconduct must have been an employee, not an independent contractor. Sometimes it is difficult to determine the difference between the two.
Most commercial truck drivers are independent contractors rather than employees of the trucking companies. However, that doesn’t matter in most truck accident cases because truckers are typically required to carry high-value insurance policies.
Parent / Child Vicarious Liability
A parent can bear financial responsibility for the consequences of misconduct committed by their minor children. In Texas, “minor” means under 18 years of age.
The Texas Family Code imposes vicarious liability on property damage committed by a minor child (under 18) under two circumstances:
- The parents negligently failed to discipline or control their child; or
- The child was at least ten years old and committed the property damage “willfully and maliciously.”
Under the latter circumstance, Texas limits parental liability to actual damages, not to exceed $25,000 plus court costs and attorneys’ fees.
Texas hasn’t enacted a statute imposing vicarious liability on the parents of a child whose misconduct causes a personal injury. Texas common law could still hold a parent responsible for a personal injury committed by their child if the parents themselves failed to exercise their duty to discipline and control the child.
Liability is especially likely if the child already had known propensities towards violence, negligence, or other forms of dangerous irresponsibility. Suppose, for example, that a mother knew that her 16-year-old son was a binge drinker. If she allowed her son to use her car for the evening and their child caused a DUI accident that injured someone, Texas might hold the mother liable.
Alcohol Vendor / Customer Vicarious Liability
Texas has enacted a “dram shop law” that can hold alcohol vendors and social hosts liable for DUI accidents. The alcohol vendor (a bar or a nightclub) could face liability for serving alcohol to an obviously intoxicated customer if the alcohol was a cause of the DUI accident.
Texas will also hold an adult social host liable for serving alcohol to a guest who later causes an accident if:
- The guest was under age 18 (not 21);
- The defendant who served the alcohol was not a parent or custodian of the minor; and
- The defendant contributed to the minor’s intoxication by providing the minor with alcohol or allowing someone else to do so while on the defendant’s premises.
The effect of the Texas dram shop law is to render the alcohol vendor or social host the insurer against any accident caused by someone whose intoxication they contributed to.
Contact a Personal Injury Attorney in Houston, TX For Help With a Vicarious Liability Claim
Vicarious liability is a nuanced concept, and liability is not always apparent. If you have encountered a situation that you believe might trigger vicarious liability, consult with an attorney immediately.