Vicarious Liability and Independent Contractors: A Short Explanation

As employers in the business industry know, they are directly responsible for any damages a negligent employee may cause. This is known in the legal field as “respondeat superior” or “vicarious liability” and is imposed regardless of whether or not the employer was involved or even aware the problem was going on.

In contrast, employers are not, as a general rule, liable for the negligent actions of their independent contractors, making them an attractive option for anyone looking to limit their exposure to risk. That said, the term “independent contractor” does not create an impenetrable shield from liability. In fact, numerous employers in Utah and in other jurisdictions have been held liable for the negligent actions of their independent contractors.  This is especially true for the transportation and construction industries, though in reality any business using independent contractors is at risk.

Courts impose liability for independent contractors based on the relationship between the parties. Under a typical employer/independent contractor relationship, the employer determines the task to be accomplished, and the contractor determines the means and methods by which the task is accomplished. However, if an employer is authorized or exercises too much control over the means and methods a contractor uses, the employer may be liable for the latter’s negligence.  Additionally, if the employer retains control over the action that actually causes the injury, then it may be vicariously liable. This is true even though it did not practice control over any other aspect of the contractor’s work.

With a clear understanding of the risks involved, an employer can more effectively determine the manner in which it wishes to engage its independent contractors. For more information on how to properly protect your business from unwarranted risks and liability exposure, feel free to contact us directly.

Skoubye, Nielson, Johansen Attorneys Salt Lake City Utah

Stevan R. Baxter

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