Rig Operator Not Liable for Employee’s Shooting

Vicarious liability is a rule of law which provides that one person can be held responsible for the negligent acts of another.  A superior-subordinate relationship, such as between an employer and employee or a parent and child, is necessary for vicarious liability to apply.  The extent of an employer’s vicarious liability for the negligent acts of its employee was recently tested in the maritime case of Beech v. Hercules Drilling.

In that case, Hercules Drilling’s employee inadvertently brought a gun with him aboard the drilling rig.  This was in violation of an express company rule prohibiting the possession of firearms on the job.  While on duty, the employee was showing off the gun when it accidentally discharged, killing the co-worker. 

The decedent’s widow brought a wrongful death suit against Hercules Drilling, claiming that Hercules was vicariously liable for the negligent act of the employee.  The District Court sided with the widow and determined that Hercules Drilling could be responsible for the accident because its employee was within the course and scope of his employment at the time of the incident.  That ruling was appealed and reversed by the U. S. Fifth Circuit Court.

In addressing inconsistent standards regarding the limits of an employer’s vicarious liability, the Fifth Circuit held that the test for whether a maritime employee is acting within the course and scope of his employment is whether his actions at the time of the wrongful conduct were in furtherance of his employer’s business interests.  Under the facts of this case, the Fifth Circuit observed that employee’s negligent possession and firing of a gun were actions beyond the scope of his employment and did not further any interests of the employer.  Accordingly, Hercules Drilling could not be held liable for the incident.

Maritime employers’ potential liability for the negligent acts of their employees under vicarious liability principles is broad.  However, the Hercules Drilling case is significant in that it recognizes limits on the extent of such liability.  This case makes clear that vicarious liability will not attach where an employee’s conduct is not sufficiently related to some objective of employer’s operations.

Note: This article is also available in the December 2012 issue of WorkBoat magazine and on WorkBoat’s website.