Vicarious Liability in Criminal Law and Its Exceptions


Vicarious liability is one of those liabilities that can be imposed on one individual for the acts or misdeeds of another individual. The principle of vicarious liability is also known as joint liability. This type of liability arises usually in those cases where a legal relationship exists between the two and that misdeeds on which this liability arises, should have happened during the course of employment.


There are some conditions which must be fulfilled in order to make someone vicariously liable –

(1) There should be a relationship of a certain kind between the two parties.

(2) The acts or misdeeds must be related to the relationship in a certain way.

(3) The acts or misdeeds has been done during the course of employment.

Reasons when a master can be held vicariously liable

  1. Respondent superior- this doctrine follows the rule that let the principal or master be responsible.
  2. Damages- for the purpose of giving the compensation or damages for the loss to the aggrieved party and to stop the blame game between the master and his servant and or principal and his agent
  3. Avoiding exploitation of the servant- master is also held liable for the misdeeds of the servant because it has been seen often that the masters exploit their servants by instructing them to do some tortious act and then firing them to avoid responsibility.
  4. Qui facit per alium facit per se  any act or misdeeds which is committed by the employee during the course of his employment is considered to be done by his employer

Case Law

Lloyd v. Grace, Smith & Co. 1912 UKHL 606

In this case, the plaintiff had two houses and wanted to sell some of her property. She approached the defendant company for preparing necessary documents. The defendant company’s manager asked her to sign some papers which he told her to be sale deeds intended to go for public sale. But fraudulently he was making her sign gift deed executed in his own name. The Court held liable the principal i.e., the defendant company as the manager was acting as the agent of the company and he committed fraud during the course of the employment.

Vicarious liability in Criminal Law

Even under criminal law, an individual can be held liable for the misdeeds of other individual, if he/she was a party to the offense. For instance, if an individual who goes with a group of people and robs a bank, can be held vicariously liable even though during the time of robing Bank, he was standing outside the bank. The principle of vicarious liability, which plays a vital role in torts and civil law generally should not be extended to criminal law. But, against this rule, under English common law, two exceptions have been recognised-  

(1) A master can be made vicariously liable for libel published by his servant. However, a master-proprietor has an opportunity to show in defence that the libel was published without his authority and with no lack of care on his part. 

(2) A master can be vicariously responsible for a public nuisance committed by his servant.” It would very often be difficult to check effectively acts of public nuisance by menial servants, unless their masters are made responsible. 

Although, liability as stated earlier, the rule of vicarious liability usually applies in civil law but in some exceptional situations, it applies in criminal law also. The maxim qui facit per alium facit per se means he who acts through another acts through himself or the law of agency is doctrine of civil law. Generally, a master can be held vicariously liable under criminal law for the misdeeds of his servant only where it has been proved that he has abetted or otherwise instigated the acts of his servant who actually committed the crime. This is general rule of criminal law that in order to make an individual criminally liable, there must be some blameworthy condition of mind or mens rea.

Exceptions under Indian Penal Code 

  • Section 149 provides that if any offence is committed by any member of an unlawful assembly in furtherance of a common object, every member of such assembly shall be made vicariously liable for the offence. 
  • Section 154 fixes criminal liability on owners or occupiers of land, or persons having or claiming an interest in a piece of land, for the omission of their servant or managers in giving information to the public authorities, or in taking adequate measures to prevent the occurrence of any illegal activity on their land. The liability on the owners or occupiers of land has been fixed on the assumption that such persons, being the owner or occupier of the land, shall be able to regulate and control such type of activity from happening on their land. 
  • Section 155 imposes vicarious liability on the owners or occupiers of land or persons claiming interest in land, for the acts or omissions of their managers or agents, if a riot or an unlawful assembly takes place in the interest of such class of persons.
  • Section 156 imposes personal liability on the managers or the agents of the land, if a riot or unlawful assembly occurs on such land.
  • Section 268 and 269 deal with public nuisance. This section provides that a master is held vicariously liable for the public nuisance committed by his servant. 
  • Section 499 provides that a master is made vicariously liable for publication of a libel by his servant. under this section, defamation is an offence.

Case Laws

Licensee and his liability 

A licensee can be held vicariously liable for the misdeeds committed by his employee during the course of employment. Even if the misdeeds which were committed were contrary to the directions given by the licensee, he still shall be held liable. In the case of Emperor v. Magadevappa Hanmantappa AIR 1927 Bom 209, where the accused had a license under the Indian Explosive Act, 1884. According to this statute that the manufacture of any explosives could take place in a building which exclusively meant for that purpose only and should be separated from any dwelling place, highway, street etc. One day the servant took some material from the building in order to manufacture explosives. At that time, there was an explosion. The accused was held liable for the same by the Court.

State’s liability for the misdeeds of its employee 

In the case of State of Rajasthan v. Vidyawati AIR 1952 SC 933, the Supreme Court held liable the state government for rashly and negligently driving of its an employee, which resulted in the death of a person. 

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