Most employers are familiar with the legal concept of vicarious liability (or because lawyers love to use Latin phrases: respondeat superior). This means, for example, that if a company truck hits another car while making deliveries, the employer is legally liable for its driver’s negligence. A new decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) demonstrates the limits of vicarious liability in the workplace context.
In Garnett v. Remedi SeniorCare of Virginia, LLC, the plaintiff sued her employer for defamation based on crude sexual comments made by her supervisor regarding the reasons she was out for surgery. She claimed that because the comments were made at work, the employer is liable for its supervisor’s conduct. The Fourth Circuit rejected this theory, concluding that the supervisor’s alleged comments were outside the course and scope of his employment. Employers are generally not liable for personal injury claims based upon the actions of their employees that do not further the employer’s business interests in any manner.
In this case, the Fourth Circuit noted that it would be virtually impossible for an employer to police its employees’ speech and prevent misconduct of this sort. Although the plaintiff did not claim sexual harassment under Title VII, the court said even that law contains defenses against liability when the employer takes steps to prevent such conduct. Although the case was decided under Virginia law, the Fourth Circuit’s reading of employers’ vicarious liability can be read in a broader context. This decision limits plaintiffs from using state law defamation claims to supplement or replace sexual harassment claims brought under Title VII.