Q. Can a person ever be held liable for injuries caused by someone else’s conduct?

As a general rule, the law holds each person responsible for the consequences of his or her own actions – if your intentional or negligent conduct results in injuries to another person, you may be held civilly liable for the reasonable monetary value of any damages proximately caused by your actions. Conversely, and as a general rule, a person usually cannot be held legally responsible for injuries or damages caused by someone else’s intentional, negligent, or other culpable conduct.

Make Sure You Know Exceptions to the Rule

As with any general rule, however, there are exceptions. In some limited instances New York law does allow liability to be imposed upon a person who – although themselves innocent of any wrongdoing – may nevertheless be held legally responsible for injuries caused by another party’s conduct. The liability imposed in such instances is referred to as “vicarious liability”because it derives solely from the acts or omissions of another party.

For example, under the doctrine of “respondeat superior” (a Latin phrase which translates to “let the master answer”), an employer may be held liable for injuries caused by his or her employee, provided that the employee’s underlying acts were within the scope of the employment. The scope of employment requirement generally excludes employer liability for acts of employees which occur before or after work, which occur while the employee is conducting personal business (even during working hours), or which were undertaken in furtherance of the employee’s personal interests and not in the furtherance of the employer’s business. For this reason, an employer usually will not be held vicariously liable for intentional torts committed by an employee (for example, an assault or sexual abuse), since those acts are generally considered to be motivated by the employee’s personal interests and therefore outside the scope of employment. Even where an employer may not be held vicariously liable, however, the employer may still be answerable in damages if its own independent negligence caused or contributed to the injuries, such as on a claim for negligent hiring, supervision, or retention.

Your Vehicle Could Make You Liable

By way of another example, Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388 makes the owner of a motor vehicle liable for the negligence of someone who uses or operates the vehicle with the owner’s permission. Permission to use a vehicle need not be direct or express – permission may be implied from the circumstances (for example, the owner handing the keys to the driver) or from an established course of conduct (for example, the driver has frequently used the owner’s car over a long period of time, and the owner was aware of such use but never objected). The law generally presumes that the use of a vehicle is with the owner’s permission, but that presumption may be rebutted by other evidence, such as that the vehicle was stolen or otherwise taken without the owner’s knowledge. In addition, the owner will not be held liable if the driver violates any express conditions or restrictions which may have been attached to the permission given – if, for example, permission is given only to drive to a particular store and back, the owner will not be vicariously liable for any injuries caused by the driver if he or she drives the vehicle to some other location.

Parents Aren’t Generally Liable for Their Children, But…

Significantly, parents are generally not legally responsible for the injury-causing acts of their minor children. In limited circumstances, however, parents can be held liable for their own negligence or carelessness which results in their child causing injury to another. Thus, a parent may be held liable for injuries resulting from their failure to exercise reasonable care in entrusting to or leaving in the possession of their child a “dangerous instrument” which, given the age, intellect, and disposition of the child, creates an unreasonable risk of injury to others. What constitutes a “dangerous instrument” will naturally depend on the particular facts and circumstances involved – a BB gun in the possession of a mature and experienced seventeen year old may not create an unreasonable risk of injury to others, but the same BB gun in the possession of a five year old very well may. Similarly, a parent can be held liable for injuries caused by their failure to use reasonable care in supervising or restraining a child with a known propensity to engage in harmful or vicious conduct that may endanger the person or property of others. Liability requires both parental knowledge of the child’s prior history of engaging in potentially injurious behavior, coupled with the ability to actually control the child.

Are you concerned that you could be liable for someone else’s conduct? Our personal injury lawyer in Albany can give you answers. Call us today to schedule a free consultation with our personal injury team.