Vicarious liability claims against employers for damages or injuries caused by their employees are among the most common civil claims in the United States. In a vicarious liability case, no fault is required; even a perfectly careful, non-negligent employer can be held liable for an employee?s careless actions. Legal and business commentators in the U.S., U.K., and Australia have criticized this form of liability as not only unfair to employers, but also inconsistently applied by courts.

This research will examine victim likeability, outcome severity, and group entitativity (i.e., the degree to which group members are interdependent and close) as possible psychological explanations for inconsistent court decisions in vicarious liability cases in the business context. Previous studies have shown that a perpetrator is blamed more, and is thereby assigned greater legal liability, for harming a likable compared to an unlikeable victim. Similarly, when a person's action results in a severe outcome, they are blamed more than if the same action results in a less severe outcome. Furthermore, blame is often "transferred" from an individual to his or her social group when entitativity is high. The current research aims to expand the focus from individuals and social groups to include business situations. The researchers will analyze a randomly selected sample of previously rendered state court decisions to determine whether the psychological factors might have influenced the decisions; run a series of studies to create a philosophically sound measure of blame; and run an experiment in which participants make blame and vicarious liability judgments after watching a video depiction of a trial in which the psychological factors are manipulated.

This doctoral research project expands our understanding of blame and its transference beyond individuals (e.g., criminal defendants) and social groups (e.g., families) to include businesses, thereby potentially informing and guiding future vicarious liability litigation. The project involves graduate and undergraduate students, many of whom are from underrepresented groups, in research. Results from the studies will be disseminated to both the legal and psychological communities and may inform and guide future vicarious liability litigation.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Jonathan Gould
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University of Nebraska-Lincoln
United States
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