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Master Servant in Tort Law

Master Servant in Tort Law
Master Servant in Tort Law


Doctrine of Liability

When a servant commits a wrongful act during their employment, both the servant and the master may be held liable. This principle, known as respondeat superior, holds the master accountable for the servant's actions, treating them as if the master had committed the act personally. 

Additionally, the Latin maxim qui facit per alium facit per se reinforces this concept, stating that one who acts through another is considered to have acted themselves. Thus, the master can be held vicariously liable alongside the servant, making their liability joint and several.

Conditions for Master's Liability

For the master to be held liable, two conditions must be met: the tort must have been committed by the servant, and it must have occurred within the course of their employment.

A servant is an individual employed by another under the direction and control of the master. This distinction is crucial, as the master's liability extends to servants but not to independent contractors.


Differentiating Servants from Independent Contractors

Servants are agents under the direct control and supervision of the employer, whereas independent contractors operate autonomously, determining how the work is to be carried out. The key difference lies in control: servants are subject to the employer's direction, while independent contractors have autonomy in executing their tasks.

To illustrate, if a personal driver negligently causes harm, the master is liable. However, if a taxi driver, considered an independent contractor, causes harm while providing a service, the master is not liable, as the driver operates independently.

Liability for Acts of Independent Contractors

Unlike with servants, employers typically aren't held liable for the torts of independent contractors. In cases such as Morgan v. Incorporated Central Council, where independent contractors were responsible for maintaining safety but failed to do so, the employer was not deemed liable for their negligence.

Exceptions to Employer's Liability

While the general rule absolves an employer from liability for the actions of an independent contractor, there exist exceptions that can hold the employer accountable for the contractor's wrongs.

1. Authorization of Illegal Acts

If an employer authorises or subsequently ratifies an illegal act by the contractor, the employer may be held liable as a joint tortfeasor. This is because the employer becomes a party to the wrongful act alongside the contractor.

2. Strict Liability and Hazardous Work

Employers may also be liable for acts of independent contractors in cases of strict liability, such as those involving extra-hazardous work or breach of statutory duty. For instance, in Rylands v. Fletcher, the employer was held liable for damages caused by a reservoir constructed by an independent contractor.

3. Duty of Care Near Highways

Employers can be held liable for dangers posed on or near highways, even if caused by independent contractors. In Tarry v. Ashton, the defendant's duty to maintain a safe lamp overhanging a footway attached by independent contractors held them liable for resulting injuries.

4. Nuisance and Breach of Duty

Liability may also arise for nuisance or breach of duty, such as withdrawal of support from a neighbour's land, irrespective of whether an independent contractor performed the act.

5. Breach of Master's Common Law Duties

If a tort results in the breach of a master's common law duties to their servant, the master can be held liable, regardless of whether the act was committed by an independent contractor.


Servants Not Under Direct Control

While servants are typically under the control of their master, modern authorities recognize cases where the master does not directly control the work.

For instance, captains of ships or surgeons in hospitals may be considered servants despite having autonomy in their work methods. This expansion of vicarious liability often relies on a "hire and fire" test to determine the employer's liability.

In cases like Rajasthan State Road Transport Corpn. v. K.N. Kothari, transfer of effective control over a servant can lead to vicarious liability, emphasising the importance of who has authority over the employee's actions.

In determining liability when a servant is lent to another, courts consider factors such as who has the power to direct the servant's work. In Mersey Docks & Harbour Board v. Coggins & Griffiths (Liverpool) Ltd., the harbour board, as the general employer, was held liable for a crane driver's negligence, despite the immediate control exerted by the stevedores.

Course of Employment

The liability of a master extends not only to expressly authorised acts but also to those committed by the servant in the course of employment, including both authorised and unauthorised actions.

An act is considered to be within the course of employment if it falls into one of two categories: either it is a wrongful act authorised by the master, or it is a wrongful and unauthorised method of performing an act authorised by the master. Thus, a master can be held liable for unauthorised acts if they occur within the scope of the servant's duties.

The rationale behind holding the master liable for such acts lies in the principle that the master has placed the agent in a position to perform certain acts on their behalf. Even if the specific act is not explicitly authorised, the master is still responsible for the manner in which the agent conducts themselves within the scope of their duties.

In National Insurance Co., Kanpur v. Yogendra Nath, the servant's negligent act of injuring two boys while driving the master's car for authorised purposes was deemed within the course of employment, making the master liable.

There is no liability for acts that are neither authorised nor a wrongful method of performing authorised tasks, as they fall outside the course of employment. For example, if a servant defames someone while running personal errands, the master cannot be held liable.

Determining whether an act falls within the course of employment or constitutes unauthorised conduct can be challenging. No singular rule exists, and each case must be assessed based on its specific circumstances and relevant legal precedents.


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