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Respondeat Superior in Illinois: When Can You Sue a Business for Injuries Caused by its Employees?

Who do you sue when you’re injured by another person and want to recover for your injuries? That may seem like a trick question, because the answer is obvious: You sue the person who caused your injuries, right? Normally, the answer is just that simple. But sometimes it can get more complicated, because sometimes the law also imposes liability on another person who didn’t directly cause the injury.

For example, we recently discussed the Illinois Dram Shop Act, under which a bartender or other licensed alcohol seller can sometimes be held liable when a drunk person whose intoxication he or she contributed to causes an injury.

Today’s post deals with a similar legal concept: Sometimes, under a doctrine known as respondeat superior, businesses are legally responsible for the injuries caused by their employees. Keep reading to find out more.

Respondeat Superior in Illinois: What it is and Why it Matters

Respondeat superior is an old legal doctrine that enables injured persons to hold employers responsible for injuries caused by their employees—at least in some cases. The doctrine is so old that in researching it you will often see references not to “employer” and “employee,” but “master” and “servant.” Despite its age, however, it remains the law in Illinois.

Under respondeat superior, an employer is vicariously liable for injuries caused by its employees while those employees are acting within the scope of their employment. The phrase “scope of employment” doesn’t have a precise definition. Instead, Illinois courts consider whether the employee’s conduct:

  • Was of the kind the employee is employed to perform;
  • Occurred substantially within the authorized time and space limits; and
  • Was actuated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the master.

As the Illinois courts have explained, “Conduct of a servant is not within the scope of employment if it is different in kind from that authorized, far beyond the authorized time or space limits, or too little actuated by a purpose to serve the master.”

Example: Montgomery v. Petty Management Corp.

That all may seem abstract, so let’s consider a concrete example. In Montgomery v. Petty Management Corp., Walter Montgomery sued Petty Management Corp. (PMC), which operated a local McDonald’s franchise, for injuries he sustained as the result of an altercation with one of PMC’s employees, Demetrius Holmes.

Montgomery had been waiting in line to place his order when Holmes, dressed in street clothes rather than a McDonald’s uniform, appeared to cut in line and order a drink. The two began arguing and, soon enough, fighting. Montgomery ended up on the floor, being kicked by Holmes until the two were separated and Holmes was taken to the back of the restaurant.

In rejecting Montgomery’s claim of respondeat superior—that PMC was liable for Holmes’ actions—the court highlighted two facts: (1) The fight occurred on the customer side of the counter, (2) where Holmes was ordering a drink, not performing his job duties (such as cleaning). As the court explained, “Standing in line and placing an order was not one of Holmes’ job duties.” As such, the altercation did not occur within the scope of his employment, and PMC could not be held liable.

Outcomes Aren’t Always So Clear-Cut

But make no mistake: The outcome of a respondeat superior claim is not always as obvious as it was in Montgomery. For example, what if an employee is involved in a car accident during the workday? It could matter whether the employee was making a delivery, on a lunch break, or on a “frolic” completely unrelated to his or her job. (And yes, that’s really what the courts call it!)

Those are just the sorts of facts that a knowledgeable personal injury lawyer can help investigate to develop the strongest case possible for a personal injury claim. If you’ve been injured and think the wrongdoer’s employer may be liable for your injury, contact the Chicago attorneys of Costa Ivone today for a free consultation.

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