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Respondeat Superior


Respondeat Superior is a legal doctrine that states that a party, or employer, is responsible or has vicarious liability for the acts of their agents or employees.


The phrase is translated from Latin and means ‘let the master answer.’ When respondeat superior is invoked, a plaintiff will often attempt to hold both the employer and the employee liable, which means that the court will look to assign joint liability when assigning damages.


There are tests one can perform to prove respondeat superior. Most jurisdictions will employ one of the following two tests.

Benefits Test. If any recreational or social activities held on the employer’s premises after working hours are endorsed by the employer, or there is even implied permission, and the employer stands to gain benefit from said activities, then the employer is liable for any harm resulting from his employee’s behavior.

Characteristics Test. If the employee’s action is required for reasonable then it would be fine, however the employer is still responsible for things including requirement of precaution to avoid injuries.

An employer will almost always be held under respondeat superior by the court, which essentially means that the respondeat superior is comparatively strict liability.


There are exceptions to this rule that have to do with the status of the employee. Independent contractors are not employees, and therefore respondeat superior cannot be applied to their employers.

A balancing test presented by the Third Restatement of Torts helps to show the difference between an independent contractor and an employee. The test focuses on the following aspects of employment:

How much control the agent and employer have agreed that the employer may exercise over the work performed.

Whether the work is done under the employer’s supervision or direction.

The skill required to carry out the work.

Who holds the responsibility of providing the tools and location necessary to perform the work.

The length of employment.

Whether the agent is paid hourly or by the whole job.

Whether the work is a regular part of the employer’s business.

Whether the two parties believe that they are creating an employment relationship.

Whether the employer is actually in business or not.

The one exemption for this statute is that federal employees are always exempt from liability of wrongdoing during the time of their employment.