Vocabulary lesson: respondeat superior

When I was in law school, I was taught that the Latin expression “respondeat superior” means “let the boss pay.”  That’s pretty much the concept.  It comes up in tort cases—cases involving personal injury other than a breach of contract.  It enables an injured party to recover from the guy who has the money, even though the guy with the money is not the one who directly caused the injury. 

For example, if I slip and fall on a wet spot at the H.E.B., it is hardly the fault of Charles Butt or any of the corporate bigwigs who own and operate the H.E.B. grocery chain. It’s probably the fault of some minimum wage worker who didn’t get over to the produce aisle fast enough to clean up the mess.  But with the doctrine of “respondeat superior” I can successfully sue H.E.B. without having to prove that the company did anything wrong. I just have to prove that I was injured due to the negligence of one of their employees.

Having provided that example, I suddenly feel guilty. I should not be using H.E.B. as the example here. They have been heroic throughout this COVID-19 pandemic.  I am grateful for the dedication of the people stocking the shelves, handing out the wet cloths as you enter, ringing up the sales behind a plastic shield, gently guiding the long line of carts to the open register.  Going to H.E.B. has been the highlight of the week for me these past several weeks.  So I am regretful that H.E.B. is what popped into my head to illustrate the legal concept of “respondeat superior.”

So let’s start over. Suppose I slip and fall at Target—a Minnesota corporation.  I don’t have to sue the poor underpaid, overworked employee who failed to clean up the wet spot. I can sue Target.  Let the boss pay!

Obviously, the lawyers who represent injured parties love “respondeat superior.” It makes their jobs so much easier, and more lucrative.  When those lawyers take on a case involving someone who slipped and fell at a public school district they are often shocked to learn that “respondeat superior” does not apply to governmental entities in Texas.  Instead, the Texas Tort Claims Act applies, and it limits school district tort liability to cases arising from the negligent use or operation of a motor vehicle.

The same is generally true under federal law.  But there is an exception: disability discrimination under ADA and/or Section 504.  Thus in I.V. v. Vacaville USD, a federal court in California cited several Circuit Court decisions for the notion that school districts can be liable for the actions of their employees under ADA/504 based on respondeat superior.  Thus the district faced potential liability for the violent assault of a student with a disability by a bus driver who was later charged with felony child abuse. Of particular interest to us is that one of the Circuits cited was our 5th Circuit.  We found this case at 76 IDELR 45 (E.D. Cal. 2020).


Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!