Shakespeare and Employer Liability

by Nathaniel H. Wadsworth on Jan. 09, 2020

Employment Employment Discrimination Employment  Sexual Harassment Employment 

Summary: Under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer can be held liable for the wrongful acts of its employee.

At his army’s camp at Agincourt on the eve of battle, Shakespeare’s Henry V, without disclosing his true identity, wanders among some of his soldiers. A conversation soon ensues regarding what guilt a king may have for his soldiers’ deaths. Though some try to place all of the blame on the king, not surprisingly Henry V argues a different position. In explaining that each man is responsible for his own choices, Henry V uses multiple examples to make his point, including how a father who sends his son out on business is not responsible for the son’s wicked mismanagement of that business. He concludes that “the king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant.” (William Shakespeare, The Life of King Henry V, act 4, scene 1.)

Though eloquently and forcefully made, the King’s argument might not prevail in court today in the employer/employee context. In fact, under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior (Latin for “let the master answer”), an employer often is held responsible for the acts of its employee. In Arizona, this doctrine of respondeat superior holds an employer responsible for the actions of its employee if the employee is acting within the scope of his/her employment. This means that:

  1. The act was the kind that the employee was employed to perform;
  2. The act occurred substantially within the authorized time and space limit of the employment; and
  3. The act was motivated at least in part by a purpose to serve.

Under these principles, Arizona courts often find employers liable for the acts of their employees. In one case, for example, an employer was found liable when its employee, working outside of his regular hours and in an intoxicated state but driving a company vehicle, crashed on his way to pick up a costumer. Likewise, where the facts support that the employee is acting within the scope of his employment, an employer can be liable for the employee’s acts of sexual harassment, even though such acts are not authorized by the employer. The question of whether an employer is liable is not always easy to determine and must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

You can learn much from Shakespeare, but if you are involved in a matter involving potential employer liability, whether as an employer, an employee, or an injured victim, you should also discuss the matter with a qualified attorney.

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