Business vs. Owner vs. Employee Liability for Personal Injury

Who is held responsible (at fault) in a lawsuit for a personal injury that occurred in a business?

If a business is legally responsible for causing your injury—or the underlying accident that led to your injury—you can usually file a personal injury lawsuit against the company itself (or make a third-party insurance claim against its liability insurance carrier). You might also, depending on the company's business structure, be able to sue the owner (or owners) of the company. And when a specific employee caused your injury, liability will almost certainly extend to the company (and in rare cases, just the employee).

In this article, we'll describe the potential personal injury liability of a business entity, its owners(s), and its employees.

Remember: Liability Generally Requires Fault

At the outset, bear in mind that except for certain limited types of personal injury cases, a business's liability—which triggers the legal obligation to pay—depends on fault or wrongdoing. This means that typically, either someone acted with negligence (the lack of reasonable care) or intentionally, and you were injured as a result. Without wrongful conduct, the fact that you're injured is usually not enough, in and of itself, to impose an obligation on the part of a business (or anyone else) to pay compensation.

(The main category of cases where the element of fault or wrongdoing is not generally a requirement is product liability. So, if you were injured by a defectively designed or unreasonably dangerous product—or one that came with insufficient safety warnings—that defect or deficiency itself will usually establish liability.)

Businesses Are Usually Liable for the Acts of Their Employees

Under the legal theories of vicarious liability and respondeat superior, a business is responsible for the acts of its employees, when those acts are done in the scope of employment or in the course of business.

So, if the employee would be liable for injuring you—if you could sue the employee—the employer will usually be responsible, too. The main limitation is "in the course of business." So, for example, if you are hit by a delivery truck making its rounds, or injured when tiles are dropped by a roofer, those injuries are caused by someone doing their job, and their employer will also be liable.

On the other hand, if after his shift ends, a store clerk happens to get into a fight with you in the mall parking lot, the store would not be liable—the clerk is doing something (fighting) that is not part of his job, is on his own time, and is not on his employer's premises.

But remember, to the extent that an injury was caused by an employee in the course of employment, you can sue the employer as well as the employee.

You May Be Able to Sue the Business Owner(s) Personally

One of the most important—if not the most important—purposes of a limited liability company (LLC) or corporation (inc.) is to shield the owners from business-related liability. If a business is an LLC or corporation, except in very rare circumstances, you can't sue the owners personally for the business's wrongful conduct.

However, if the business is a sole proprietorship or a partnership, you may well be able to sue the owner(s) personally, in addition to suing their business. This is advantageous, since the more people or entities you can sue, the greater your chance of collecting a judgment or settlement.

When your injury is caused by the negligence or wrongdoing of a business or one of its employees, it's part of your lawyer's job to figure out who might be on the legal (and financial) hook for your medical bills, lost income, "pain and suffering", and other losses ("damages"). To discuss the specifics of your situation and learn more about your options, get in touch with a personal injury lawyer.

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