Case Example: Vicarious Tort Liability for Emotional Distress

This case example illustrates when businesses have to pay for damages caused by employees. Follow this vicarious tort liability claim for emotional distress.

Vicarious liability means that one person or entity is legally responsible for the actions of another person or entity due to a legally relevant relationship.

In this case, an amusement park bears the responsibility for emotional harm to customers caused by a negligent employee.

Our case study follows Mary, a fictional amusement park patron who is harmed by the actions of a reckless boat ride operator. This study uses fictional characters based on fact patterns from actual injury cases.

We’ll cover how the victims were harmed, liability for the victims’ damages, and the final injury claim settlement. We close with a list of important points about vicarious tort liability.

Float Ride Turned Dangerous

On a beautiful summer day, Mary and her 8-month-old daughter went to an amusement park known for its whimsical characters.

While there, they decided to ride boat attraction, seating approximately 25 patrons with one employee driving the boat. This boat was free-floating, meaning that it was not on a track.

The employee began horsing around, telling the patrons that he could “rock” the boat back and forth to make a more frightening adventure. The ride was not supposed to be scary and was meant to be a peaceful float across the water.

The more the employee rocked the boat, the more the riders protested; however, this did not stop his behavior. Because it was not on a track, the boat capsized, dumping all 25 patrons and the driver into the 10-foot-deep “river.”

None of the patrons were wearing life vests. Mary found herself and her 8-month-old baby fully submerged under the water, unable to get air. Mary was able to hold onto her baby as she swam to safety; however, both were distraught.

Damages to Mother and Child

While Mary did not have any physical injuries from the boat accident, her emotional injuries were immediate and distressing.

Because she was holding her helpless infant when she was abruptly plunged into the cold, deep water, Mary had the real and present fear that she would not be able to swim to safety and hold onto her baby.

Mary had nightmares and daytime anxiety attacks. Referred by her doctor, Mary had six months of mental health treatment to overcome her fears and distress.

After the accident, Mary’s baby woke up screaming every night for the next three months. Before the boat accident, she had been a happy baby who was sleeping through the night.

By the end of the year, both mother and baby had recovered from their ordeal.

Liability for the Amusement Park Accident

The boat driver is liable for negligence because his behavior far exceeded the bounds of what is expected of an amusement park employee.

In a lawsuit, the likely causes of action against the boat driver would be intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and general negligence.

The amusement park is also on the hook for the negligence of the employee. Under a legal term called respondeat superior, an employer is responsible for the acts of an employee when the action occurs within the scope of the worker’s job.

The amusement park not only has vicarious tort liability for the acts of its employee, but the park is also liable based on negligent hiring and negligent supervision.

In other words, the amusement park is liable because if the boat driver had been better trained and supervised, he would never have engaged in such an idiotic act.

Final Compensation and Settlement

Mary was contacted soon after the accident by representatives of the amusement park. They let her know the boat operator had been fired. They also offered to discuss a settlement when she was ready.

Most emotional distress claims don’t get far if the victim has no physical injuries. In this case, the amusement park management recognized that a “gentle” boat ride turning into a near-drowning was a public relations nightmare.

Six months later, Mary was willing to discuss settlement. The amusement park representative offered $50,000 to Mary, $25,000 to the baby, and free amusement park tickets for one year.

Mary did not want to hire an attorney. She wanted to put the incident behind her and get on with her life. Since she and her baby suffered no lasting effects, she settled the case for the amounts offered.

The amusement park also covered the cost of setting up an interest-bearing trust account for the baby’s compensation and having the child’s settlement approved by the court. The funds, with interest, would be available to the child when she reached the age of 18.

Important Points About Vicarious Liability

  • If you get hurt on business property, file an incident report as soon as possible with the management office responsible for that property.
  • Employers can be liable for injuries caused by employees outside of the business’s property, such as accidents caused by drivers in a company vehicle.
  • Injury claims against government workers have unique filing requirements.
  • Personal injury settlements for children typically require court approval.
  • Claims based on emotional distress without physical injuries are hard to win.
  • Severe injury claims should be handled by an attorney to get the best results for the victim.


Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>