Master-Servant Rule Explained

Master-Servant Rule Explained

The master-servant rule makes employers responsible for their employees' actions, even if they were unaware of them. It applies to acts within employees' regular duties for the employer.


Employers are held accountable for their employees' actions within the scope of their duties through the legal guideline known as the master-servant rule. It may be referred to as "the principle of respondeat superior" or "let the master answer." Note that it is different from the historical Master and Servant Acts in the United Kingdom.

Employer Liability and the Master-Servant Rule

The master-servant rule holds employers accountable for their employees' wrongdoings, but it doesn't apply to independent contractors. Employer liability depends on whether the actions were part of the employee's job or personal interests.

Surprisingly, employers can be held responsible for their employees' actions even if they were unaware of the misconduct, known as the "duty of supervision." For example, in the brokerage business, a branch manager's failure to address unethical behavior may result in the employer being held liable for damages and facing penalties.

Rule's Origins

Initially applied to enslaved individuals in ancient Rome, the rule's scope later extended to servants, animals, and family members of the head of a family. Given this responsibility, employers should establish guidelines for appropriate employee behavior through handbooks, ethical training, and procedures for detecting and reporting unethical conduct.

Insurance Coverage for Employee Actions

In some respondeat superior cases, courts have ruled that employers may not be liable if they were unaware of their employees committing fraud, as there was no participation in the wrongdoing.

On the other hand, if an employee harms another employee through work-related actions, the company might not be held liable if they have workers' compensation insurance. This insurance compensates employees for job-related injuries, and if the accident wasn't due to employer negligence, they may not be liable.

However, workers' compensation doesn't cover all injury insurance claims, prompting many companies to opt for employer's liability insurance. This insurance protects companies from financial damages resulting from an employee's lawsuit for job-related injuries not covered by worker's compensation.

Real-World Examples of the Master-Servant Rule

Instances of the master-servant rule vary, and it's wise to seek legal advice for individual cases. Here are a few examples of when employers may or may not be held liable for their employees' actions.

Enron's Case

An accounting firm was faced with potential liability in 2002 when one of its accountants failed to report false sales claims made by a manufacturer. This oversight could have made the accounting firm liable if the manufacturer's claims were disputed during an audit. A similar situation arose with Arthur Andersen, a Big Five accounting firm, which faced dire consequences for its involvement in auditing Enron.

Arthur Andersen had to give up its CPA licenses in 2002 after being found guilty of obstructing justice in connection with the Enron scandal. Although the U.S. Supreme Court later reversed the conviction in 2005, the damage to the company was irreversible, and it practically ceased to exist.

Company's Property

When an employee has a vehicular accident with a company truck after work hours, the employer is usually not held responsible. However, if the accident occurs while the employee is on the road for company business or representing the company, the employer may be liable for the damages caused by the accident.


The master-servant rule is a legal guideline that holds employers responsible for their employees' actions within the scope of their duties. To protect their business, employers should establish guidelines for appropriate employee behavior and ensure they have appropriate insurance coverage. It's essential to seek legal advice for individual cases as liability varies depending on the situation.

Master-Servant Rule