Agency, Vicarious Liability & the Doctrine of Respondeat Superior

August 13, 2009

By: David K. Jaffe

Vicarious liability is based on a relationship between the parties, irrespective of participation, either by act or omission, of the one vicariously liable, under which it has been determined as a matter of policy that one person should be liable for the act of the other. Its true basis is largely one of public or social policy under which is has been determined that, irrespective of fault, a party should be held to respond for the acts of another.[1] Thus, a principal whose liability rests solely upon the doctrine of respondeat superior and not upon any independent act of the principal is not a joint tortfeasor with the agent from whose conduct the principal's liability is derived.[2] Essentially, aside from the relationship between the parties creating the doctrine of vicarious liability, the principal is not a tortfeasor in the true sense of the word because he is not independently liable based upon his own independent actionable fault.[3]

The system of contribution among joint tortfeasors, of which Connecticut's apportionment rules contained in Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 52-102b and 52-572h are a key component, meets the problem of how to compensate an injury inflicted by the acts of more than one tortfeasor. Specifically, in enacting Tort Reform I and Tort Reform II to allow a tortfeasor to be responsible solely for his own percentage of negligence, the legislature effectively allowed for contribution among joint tortfeasors and removed the onus of the deep pocket theory.[4] The liability of the joint tortfeasor is direct because the tortfeasor actually contributed to the plaintiff's injury, and is divisible because the conduct of at least one other also contributed to the injury. Contribution and indemnification, however, are based on fundamentally different principles. Although both indemnification and contribution are based on equitable principles,[5] indemnity involves a claim for reimbursement in full from one on whom a primary liability is claimed to rest, while contribution involves a claim for reimbursement of a share of a payment necessarily made by the claimant which equitably should have been paid in part by the others.[6]

Under the common law rule, a principle and agent are not joint tortfeasors.[7] In addition, it is a well-settled principle that when a plaintiff brings a claim against a principal based solely upon the tortuous conduct of the agent, the plaintiff cannot recover any more compensatory damages from the principal than it could from the agent.[8] In such cases, it would be error for the trier of fact to return a verdict for compensatory damages in a greater amount against the principal than against the agent.[9]

Joint liability is based upon the concept that all tortfeasors are independently at fault for their own wrongful acts.[10] Their liability is direct because they actually contributed to the injury. At common law, an individual injured by the negligence of one or more tortfeasors could proceed against any one of the tortfeasors for payment of damages. This was permitted to ensure that the plaintiff would be made whole. The terms "joint and several liability" essentially meant than an injured party could look to either or both of the tortfeasors and that either one would be liable for the full amount of the plaintiff's damages.[11]

Prior to October 1, 1986, Connecticut adhered to the rules of joint and several liability with no contribution among joint tortfeasors. This doctrine can be stated succinctly. If the illegal conduct of each of the defendants was a proximate cause of the collision, they would be liable jointly and severally, the plaintiff would have a right to recover the entire amount of damages awarded from either, and if he did, the defendant paying them would have no right of contribution against the other; or the plaintiff might have sued either alone, and of course in the event of recovery, that one would have been compelled to pay the entire amount of damages.[12]

In accordance with the common law of joint and several liability, therefore, even a defendant whose degree of fault was comparatively small could be held responsible for the entire amount of damages, as long as his negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries. Thus, the plaintiff could collect the entire amount of his judgment from the richest defendant, or from the defendant with the deepest pocket.[13]

Intending to abolish the common law rule that produced an involuntary discharge of joint tortfeasors, the legislature enacted Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-572 e[14] which reflects its preference for preserving an unknowing injured party's opportunity to seek relief from responsible tortfeasors and a policy against enforcing an injured party's involuntary discharge of responsible tortfeasors.[15] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-572 e, which allows an injured party to maintain the right to pursue other tortfeasors even though the injured party secured payment against one of the tortfeasors, does not abrogate the common law rule of respondeat superior that a principal and agent are not joint tortfeasors.

In a 1999 case,[16] the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the release of an employee in a negligence action served to release the employer whose sole liability was premised on the doctrine of respondeat superior. In the context of the employer/employee relationship, the employer is not a tortfeasor in the true sense because the employer is not liable based upon his own independent actions.


[1] See Theophelis v. Lansing General Hospital, 430 Mich. 473, 483, 424 N.W.2d 478 (1988).

[2] See Stulginski v. Cizauskas, 125 Conn. 293, 296 (1939).

[3] See Elias v. Unisys Corp., 410 Mass. 479, 481, 573 N.E.2d 946 (1991).

[4] See Donner v. Kearse, 234 Conn. 660, 666-67 (1995).

[5] See Lockwood v. Nagy Brothers, Inc., 150 Conn. 691, 692 (1962).

[6] Kaplan v. Merberg Wrecking Corp., 152 Conn. 405, 412 (1965); Krytatas v. Stop & Shop, Inc., 205 Con. 694, 701 (1988).

[7] Dodd v. Middlesex Mutual Assurance Co., 242 Conn. 375, 379-80 (1997).

[8] See 1 Restatement (Second), Agency § 217 B(2) (1958); 2 Restatement (Second), Agency § 359 C(2); W. Seavey, Agency (1964) § 95 (D), p. 170.

[9] See Larsen Chelsey Realty Co. v. Larsen, 232 Conn. 480, 503 (1995).

[10] Caviote v. Shea, 116 Conn. 569, 575 (1933).

[11] Sparrow v. Bromage, 83 Conn. 27, 28-29 (1910).

[12] Rose v. Heisler, 118 Conn. 632 (1934).

[13] G. Royster, Joint and Several Liability and Collateral Sources under the 1987 Tort Reform Act, 62 Conn. B.J. 257 (1988); Donner v. Kearse, 234 Conn. 660, 666-67 (1995).

[14] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-572 e provides: "Release of joint tortfeasor. (a) For the purposes of this section the term 'joint tortfeasors' means two or more persons jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to person or property whether or not a judgment has been recovered against all or any of them. (b) A release by the injured person, or his legal representative, of one joint tortfeasor does not discharge the other tortfeasors unless, and only to the extent, the release so provide."

[15] See, e.g., Sims v. Honda Motor Co., 225 Conn. 401 (1993).

[16] Alvarez v. New Haven Register, Inc., 249 Conn. 709 (1999).