Law School Case Brief
Ploof v. Putnam - 83 Vt. 252, 75 A. 277 (1910)
A master is liable for the act of his servant, though it is wilful and malicious, when it is done in furtherance of the master's business and within the scope of the servant's employment. The primary test, then, is, not the character of the act itself, nor whether it was done during the period of employment, but whether it was done to carry out the directions of the master, express or implied, or to effect some purpose of the servant alone.
Defendant Sylvester A. Ploof owned an island and boat dock on Lake Champlain. While plaintiff Henry Putnam was on his boat on the lake with his family, a storm arose. Putnam secured his boat to Ploof's dock to keep it safe during the storm. Ploof's employee and caretaker on the island untied Putnam's boat from the dock, which was then damaged during the storm. Putnam filed a lawsuit against Ploof in Vermont state court seeking to recover for damages sustained by his boat. The trial court found in favor of Putnam. Ploof appealed, arguing that the trial court erred when it instructed the jury that he was liable if the acts of his employee were within the scope of his employment.
Was the Ploof liable for the acts done by his employee acting within the scope of the employee's employment?
The state supreme court affirmed the trial court's judgment. Following the doctrine of respondeat superior, the court posited that a master was liable for the wilful and malicious act of his servant, done in furtherance of the master's business and within the scope of the servant's employment, but not for such act done to effect some purpose of the servant alone. In the case at bar, the Court determined that the trial court had correctly instructed the jury because the question of whether Ploof's employee had acted within the scope of his employment was a question of fact for the jury. In the circumstances of the case, the court ruled, the trial court was right in the instruction given; the act being within the scope of the agency and done for the master's benefit, Ploof's liability was the same as if he had done it himself.
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