Are employers liable for injuries or damages caused by independent contractors?

Author: Michael Jacobson, XpertHR Legal Editor

In most cases, no. Under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior (Latin for "let the superior answer") the employer that hired an independent contractor would not be considered the "superior" and thus, would likely not be directly liable for injuries or damages caused by the independent contractor. This is part of the reason why companies hire independent contractors in the first place - they want work done, but they also want an extra layer of protection to shield them from this type of liability. Importantly, there are several exceptions to this separation of liability, most of which will turn on state law considerations.

California, for example, follows the "peculiar risk doctrine," which attributes responsibility for injuries or damages caused by independent contractors to the employers that hired them, but only in the following two situations:

  • The employer hired the independent contractor to perform "inherently dangerous work" and failed to specify precautions or safety regulations; or
  • The employer hired the independent contractor to perform "inherently dangerous work" and specified precautions or safety regulations, but the independent contractor ignored those directives and caused an injury or damages that could have been avoided if the directives had been followed.

The takeaway for employers in states where the "peculiar risk doctrine" applies is that they should not only require that independent contractors follow specific safety regulations, but they should also take steps to ensure that the independent contractor actually implements those safety measures in connection with the work. They should not be permitted to simply ignore an employer's safety requirements.