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15 Mar 2024

The Burden of the Employer | A Look at Company Liabilities for Employee Action in India

15 Mar 2024
burden on employee on employer

Introduction

In the bustling corporate landscape of India, companies thrive on the dedication and expertise of their employees. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and the actions, or sometimes, even the lack thereof, of an employee can have significant legal ramifications for the company itself. This post aims at explaining the legal implications a company can face on behalf of its employees, and summarizing the legal concepts underlying the same.

Vicarious Liability: Carrying the Weight of Another’s Wrongdoing

The concept of vicarious liability, or imputed liability, forms the bedrock of understanding a company’s accountability for employee conduct. Stemming from the Latin phrase “Respondeat Superior” which translates to “let the master answer” this principle holds an employer liable for the torts (civil wrongs) committed by their employees while acting within the scope of their employment. The basis of holding a company vicariously liable for the actions or inactions of its employees is that employers are in a position to limit and/or curtail such actions or inactions. However, it often becomes practically difficult to determine situations where an employee acted within the scope of their employment.

Scope of Employment: Defining the Line between Work and Personal

Determining whether an employee’s actions fall within the scope of employment is crucial in establishing vicarious liability of the employer. Generally, acts undertaken:

  • During work hours,
  • At the place of work,
  • While performing duties assigned by the employer/company, or
  • While furthering the employer/company’s interest, are considered to be within the scope of an employee’s employment.

However, exceptions exist for the following:

  • Frolic and Detour: Acts of an employee that are motivated by personal agendas, and completely deviating from the duties and responsibilities of the employee, as determined by the company, fall outside the scope of his/her employment.
  • Intentional Torts: Malicious and intended acts of an employee that exceed the boundaries of reasonable conduct expected from them are deemed outside the scope of their employment,

Beyond Civil Wrongs: The Shadow of Criminal Liability

In certain situations, a company can also face criminal liability for the actions of its employees. The Indian Penal Code, 1860, outlines specific offenses where a company can be held accountable for offenses committed by employees. These include situations where:

  • The offense was committed by the employee for the company’s direct or indirect benefit.
  • The offense was committed by the employee with the knowledge or consent of the company’s management.
  • The offense committed by the employee was facilitated by a lack of proper due diligence or oversight by the company.

Proactive Measures: Shielding the Company from the Storm

While the law holds companies accountable for employee conduct, proactive measures can mitigate the risk of legal and financial repercussions. These include:

  • Robust Employee Training: Regularly training employees on company policies, ethical conduct, and legal compliance can minimize the chances of misconduct.
  • Clear Codes of Conduct: Establishing and disseminating clear codes of conduct outlining acceptable and unacceptable behavior provides a framework for employee actions.
  • Effective Supervision: Implementing proper supervision and monitoring systems can help identify and address potential issues before they escalate.
  • Adequate Insurance Coverage: Investing in comprehensive liability insurance can provide financial protection against legal claims arising from employee actions.

Navigating the Legal Labyrinth: Seeking Expert Guidance

The legal landscape surrounding company liability for employee actions can be complex and nuanced. It is crucial for companies to seek the guidance of experienced legal counsel to deal with such scenarios as well as while framing its internal policies to minimize the risk of attracting such liability. Indian courts have, from time to time, set out certain guardrails and principles to address the issue of employers’ liabilities for their employees, which form the basis of the concept of vicarious liability in India.

Landmark Judgments

  • State of Rajasthan v. Mst. Vidhyawati & Anr. (1962): The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that the State of Rajasthan was vicariously liable for the tortious act of its employee who carried out such act during the course of his employment, despite the State not directly authorizing or condoning the act so carried out by the employee. It was also held that the liability of the State in such matters would be the same as any other employer, and that the State would not enjoy any immunity in matters of vicarious liability.
  • State Bank of India v. Shyama Devi (1978): The respondent gave some cash and a cheque to her husband’s friend, who was an employee of the appellant bank, for depositing the same in her account. No receipt or voucher was obtained indicating the said deposit. The employee, instead of making the deposits in the respondent’s account, got the cheque cashed and misappropriated the amounts. To cover up his act, the employee made false entries in the respondent’s passbook. The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that the employee had acted outside the scope of his employment and without the directions, orders or knowledge of the bank. Hence, the appellant bank was not held liable for the fraud committed by its employee in this matter.
  • State of Maharashtra & Ors. v. Kanchanmala Vijaysingh Shirke & Ors. (1995): In this matter, Vijaysingh died in an accident when a jeep, which belonged to the State, dashed against his scooter. The 3rd appellant was the driver of the jeep but at the time of the accident, the 4th respondent, who was then a clerk in a separate department of the State Government, was driving the jeep. The State contended that since the act was not authorized by it, the State could be held vicariously liable. The Bombay High Court affirmed this stance and penalized only the 4th respondent. The Hon’ble Supreme Court, while overruling the High Court’s decision, held that the accident took place when the act authorised by the State was being performed in a mode which may not be proper but nonetheless it was directly connected with ‘the course of employment’ and it was not an independent act for a purpose or business which had no nexus or connection with the business of the State so as to absolve the appellant-State from the liability. Further, it was held that in its capacity as an employer, the State has to shoulder the responsibility on a wider basis and will be responsible to third parties for acts which it has expressly or implicitly forbidden its servant (the driver) to do.
  • Anita Bhandari v. Union of India (2002): In this matter, the husband of the petitioner went to a bank and happened to enter at the same time as the cash box of the bank was being carried inside the bank. The security guard thought of him as an attacker and shot him, causing his death. The petitioner claimed that the bank was vicariously liable because the security guard had done such an act in the course of his employment. Despite the bank’s defense that it had not authorized the security guard to shoot, the Gujarat High Court opined that the act of giving the guard a gun amounted to authorizing him to shoot when he deemed it necessary.
  • M Anumohan v. State of Tamil Nadu & Ors. (2016): The State was held liable for the acts of a police officer who falsely implicated certain individuals under the NDPS Act, 1985, and attempted to blackmail victims and extort money from them. The Court emphasized that acts directly connected with authorized acts that can be carried out by a police officer would be within the course of employment and held that the act of filing a false complaint is directly connected to an authorized act by the State and hence, vicarious liability for such matters can be attached to the State.

Examples

Here are some examples to illustrate where the line is drawn in cases pertaining to vicarious liability of a company/employer:

Company Liable:
a) Delivery driver causing an accident while on a delivery route – The driver is acting within the scope of employment, fulfilling company duties and hence, the company is vicariously liable for the driver’s act.
b) Security guard assaulting a customer in the company parking lot – This act, though wrong, falls within the guard’s responsibility to maintain safety on company premises, and therefore, the company would be held vicariously liable.

Company not Liable:
a) Employee getting into a car accident after work hours while driving their own car – The act is purely personal and outside the scope of the employee’s employment. Hence, the company will not be liable here.
b) Salesperson making offensive jokes to a client at a bar after work – Though inappropriate, the act doesn’t involve company time, resources, or duties, and the company will not be held liable.

Understanding and managing the potential liabilities arising from employee conduct is an essential aspect of responsible corporate governance in India. By implementing proactive measures and fostering a culture of ethical conduct, companies can create a safe and compliant work environment while minimizing the risk of legal entanglements. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. By prioritizing employee training, clear policies, and effective supervision, companies can not only safeguard their legal standing but also foster a more ethical and productive work environment for all.

Conclusion

The concept of company liability for employee actions in India is a complex and evolving landscape. Rooted in principles of vicarious liability, the extent of an employer’s responsibility rests on a delicate balance that takes into account factors like the nature of the employee’s wrongful act, the scope of their employment, and the connection between the action and the employer’s enterprise.

The cases and legal principles discussed in this analysis highlight the nuances involved. Employers carry a substantial burden to ensure that their workplaces are safe, free from discrimination, and operate within a framework of ethical conduct. Understanding the legal nuances of employer liability in India is not only a matter of compliance but a fundamental aspect of responsible business operation and risk management.

  • Robust Policies and Procedures: Implement clear and comprehensive policies addressing workplace harassment, discrimination, data protection, and other areas of potential risk. These policies should clearly define acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, provide mechanisms for grievance redressal, and outline the company’s commitment to upholding ethical behaviour.
  • Thorough Training and Education: Conduct regular training programs to educate employees on their responsibilities under company policies, as well as relevant labour and anti-discrimination laws. Training should not only convey rules but also help employees understand the principles behind them and the real-world impact of their actions.
  • Effective Reporting and Investigation Mechanisms: Establish channels for employees to report concerns or suspected violations without fear of retaliation. Investigate all allegations promptly and thoroughly, taking corrective action where necessary.
  • Due Diligence in Hiring: Conduct thorough background checks for potential hires, especially for sensitive positions. Consider not only technical skills but also integrity, past conduct, and suitability for the company culture.
  • Proactive Risk Management: Identify potential areas of risk within the company’s operations and implement measures to mitigate those risks. This includes potential risks related to employee interactions with clients, handling sensitive data, and the use of company resources.
  • Insurance Coverage: Explore relevant insurance products to cover potential liabilities arising from employee actions.

FAQs on the Burden of the Employer: A Look at Company Liabilities for Employee Action in India

  1. What is the concept of vicarious liability and how does it apply to companies in India?
    Vicarious liability holds employers responsible for the torts (civil wrongs) committed by their employees while acting within the scope of their employment. This means the company can be sued for the employee’s actions, even if the company didn’t directly authorize them.
  1. What factors determine whether an employee’s action falls within the scope of their employment?
    Generally, actions undertaken during work hours, at the workplace, while performing assigned duties, or furthering the company’s interests are considered within the scope of employment. However, exceptions exist for personal errands, intentional torts exceeding expected conduct, and actions outside working hours.
  1. Can companies ever be criminally liable for employee actions in India?
    Yes, under certain circumstances. The Indian Penal Code outlines specific offenses where companies can be held accountable for employee actions, such as when the act benefits the company directly or indirectly, is committed with the management’s knowledge or consent, or results from a lack of proper oversight by the company.
  1. What proactive measures can companies take to minimize the risk of legal repercussions from employee actions?
  • Implement robust employee training on company policies, ethics, and legal compliance.
  • Establish and disseminate clear codes of conduct outlining acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
  • Implement effective supervision and monitoring systems to identify and address potential issues.
  • Invest in comprehensive liability insurance to provide financial protection against legal claims.
  1. What are some landmark judgments in India that have shaped the understanding of vicarious liability?
  • State of Rajasthan v. Mst. Vidhyawati & Anr. (1962): Established the principle of vicarious liability for employers even without directly authorizing the employee’s act.
  • State Bank of India v. Shyama Devi (1978): Highlighted that acting outside the scope of employment, without the company’s knowledge, exempts the company from liability.
  • State of Maharashtra & Ors. v. Kanchanmala Vijaysingh Shirke & Ors. (1995): Clarified that unauthorized acts directly connected to authorized duties can still attract liability.
  1. Can you provide some examples to illustrate the concept of vicarious liability in action?
  • Company Liable: A delivery driver causing an accident while on duty, or a security guard assaulting a customer at work.
  • Company Not Liable: An employee’s car accident after work or a salesperson making offensive jokes to a client outside work hours.
  1. What are the key takeaways for companies regarding employee conduct and associated liabilities?
    Understanding and managing potential liabilities is crucial for responsible corporate governance. Companies can minimize risks by prioritizing employee training, clear policies, and effective supervision, fostering a culture of ethical conduct, and adhering to relevant legal guidelines.

Disclaimer:

The content of this article is for information purpose only and does not constitute advice or a legal opinion and are personal views of the author. It is based upon relevant law and/or facts available at that point of time and prepared with due accuracy & reliability. Readers are requested to check and refer to relevant provisions of statute, latest judicial pronouncements, circulars, clarifications etc. before acting on the basis of the above write up. The possibility of other views on the subject matter cannot be ruled out. By the use of the said information, you agree that the Author / Treelife is not responsible or liable in any manner for the authenticity, accuracy, completeness, errors or any kind of omissions in this piece of information for any action taken thereof.

Posted by
Treelife
Last updated on
Mar 15, 2024, 5:51pm

Disclaimer:

The content of this article is for information purpose only and does not constitute advice or a legal opinion and are personal views of the author. It is based upon relevant law and/or facts available at that point of time and prepared with due accuracy & reliability. Readers are requested to check and refer to relevant provisions of statute, latest judicial pronouncements, circulars, clarifications etc. before acting on the basis of the above write up. The possibility of other views on the subject matter cannot be ruled out. By the use of the said information, you agree that the Author / Treelife is not responsible or liable in any manner for the authenticity, accuracy, completeness, errors or any kind of omissions in this piece of information for any action taken thereof.

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