Under the legal doctrine of “Respondeat Superior” an employer may be held liable for the actions of an employee who, while acting within the scope of his employment, injures a third party. The term “Respondeat Superior” is Latin for “Let the master answer,” and this theory of recovery against an employer is something every business owner should know about. Because you can be held liable for the actions of your employees, there are a number of important steps that all employers should take.
First, you should know who you are hiring. You should always make a thorough evaluation of potential employees so that any problems in their past do not come back to haunt you. Check the references and more importantly the driving record. Even if the potential employee is the best employee in the world, if he has two prior drunk driving convictions you better not hire him. If he gets into a wreck in a company truck after drinking you could be exposed to punitive damages for trusting him with a vehicle.
Second, always communicate safe practices to your employees. Most employers have policy hand-books which describe safe operational practices, but some don’t aggressively follow them. Having a safety policy that no one follows makes it more likely you will be held liable for the injuries your employees cause. You should always be able to demonstrate that your company teaches the policies to the employees and then strictly enforces them. You should have a clear zero tolerance for drug and alcohol violations. If you have employees who are drinking or taking illegal drugs, you cannot have them on the payroll if you are serious about safety.
Third, make sure you get out of the office and see what is going on. If you have employees on a job site, show up unannounced to see how they are operating. If you notice a potential problem make sure everyone knows how you want them to behave. If you have a supervisor who cuts corners on safety you had better get him to follow the policy or get rid of him. The other employees on the job will be quick to say that the company permitted safety violations to make the job go quicker. Witnesses in these cases rarely work for the company by the time a lawsuit gets filed. This kind of testimony can be deadly at trial.
Fourth, take some time to think about your operation. You might hire a safety consultant to review your company operations to identify potential safety risks. One of the most frequent problems employers have is with injuries caused by an employee’s use of a company vehicle. Make sure your employees are good drivers.
Fifth, make the time to review your operation with your attorney and insurance agent. Ask them to review your operation for problems or areas where you may be exposed to unnecessary liability.
Finally, make sure that safety at your company is not just a slogan but a way of life. You must be proactive in protecting your company and you should always be looking for ways to make your operation safer.