I have heard people speaking about a supposed “civil shield” for employees, but I can’t find anything that proves or disproves it.

The theory is something like, if an employee is following the directions of his/her employer and commits a civil wrong, then you can only sue the company - not the individual employee. But I don’t know if that’s really true.

This would not apply to criminal offenses.

Is this a real thing?


3 Answers 3


At common law, there is no civil shield

The common law position is that an employee is responsible for any torts they commit, and, through the doctrine of vicarious liability, the employer is also responsible.

It does not absolve employees of liability. Both employer and employee may be held accountable

There are certain common law carve-outs, such as the qualified immunity of government employees, but these also tend to give immunity to the employer as well.

Statutory protections

Any "civil shield" that exists is most probably a creature of statute. For example s3 of the Employees Liability Act 1991 syas:

(1) If an employee commits a tort for which his or her employer is also liable:

(a) the employee is not liable to indemnify, or to pay any contribution to, the employer in respect of the liability incurred by the employer, and

(b) the employer is liable to indemnify the employee in respect of liability incurred by the employee for the tort (unless the employee is otherwise entitled to an indemnity in respect of that liability).

Note that this is not a total protection: if the employee was found liable and the employer was unable to indemnify them (e.g. by being insolvent), then the employee is left carrying the can.

  • 5
    While not strictly part of the law, employees are somewhat protected by the "you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip" doctrine. An individual employee probably won't be capable of paying out a large enough judgement to make the suit worth your time.
    – bta
    Commented May 7 at 0:59
  • 6
    @bta Just hope the aggrieved party is actually out for blood and won't be just as happy with turnip chutney...
    – Perkins
    Commented May 7 at 15:21

In , the general answer is yes.

The German concept is Arbeitnehmerhaftung (employee liability), meaning (civil) liability for damages caused by an employee while fulfilling their duties.

In Germany, this liability usually only arises if the employee acted against the rules set by their employer (supervisor or company policy), or against general professional rules or regulations (and even then it has limits - but that's another question). If they acted based on wrong directions by their employer, generally the employer will be liable.

This follows mostly from §278 BGB, which says that if you employ any kind of helper for fulfilling a contract, you are liable for any mistakes they make. As a consequence, a dissatisfied customer could not directly sue an individual employee, as only their contractual partner (the employer) would be liable. In principle the employer could then sue their employee for the damages, but that is only possible if the employee made a mistake, and if the employee acted follwing their directions, there would not be a mistake to sue for.


There are opposite rules for torts and breaches of contract.


The general rule in Oregon, and almost all other U.S. jurisdictions is that if you personally participate in a civil wrong (e.g. a "tort") you are legally responsible, even if you commit the civil wrong in the course of your employment.

The widespread myth that an employee working for a corporation is immune from liability for their wrongful conduct while working for their employer is not true.

Sometimes someone who is harmed by tortious conduct of a corporate employee (e.g. negligently causing an accident) is not sued individually, because the employee is judgment proof and employers and principals are vicariously liable for the acts of their employees and agents acting within the scope of their official duties under a legal principle called respondiat superior. It is also usually harder to prove than a particular employee was at fault than it is to prove that someone working for the employer was at fault. In tort law, "corporate personhood" is a pro-victim policy and not a policy that protects corporations.

Thus, the employer is legally responsible for the acts of an employee done in the course of the employer's business even if the employer's management did nothing wrong and the employee was violating company policy or disobeying management regarding the manner in which the employee's duties were to be carried out.

On the other hand, in some circumstances, the employer or principal will have a legal duty to indemnify (i.e. pay judgments against) and defend (i.e. hire lawyers to fight lawsuits against) the employee against lawsuits arising out of the employee's tortious conduct in the course of the employee's official duties for the employer or principal (and the employee is often covered by the employer's insurance policies in this situation). This is the norm in the case of corporate officers, corporate directors, and unionized law enforcement officers in the United States.


On the other hand, employees and agents of disclosed employers and principals do not have contractual liability for the employer or principal's contracts, even if the employee or agent was the person who signed the contract on behalf of the employer or principal, and even if the employee or agent was the person who caused the contract to be breached.

For example, if an employee signs a lease in the name of the employer, and then causes the employer to violate some term of the lease (e.g. by keeping a store open after landlord approved hours) the landlord can't sue the employee for breaching the lease, the landlord can only sue the employer-tenant (unless the employee personally guaranteed the lease).

However, if the contract contains representations of fact that are fraudulent, the employee who affirmed the representations on behalf of the employer will usually have personal liability for the fraud committed, which is a tort, even though the employee will not have liability under the contract itself.

Also, sometimes a breach of a contract between an employer and a third-party actually caused by an employee will also be a breach of the duties that the employee owes to the employer, in which case the employer can sue the employee, even though the third-party cannot sue the employee directly.

Special Statutory Liability Cases

There are also in between cases in instances where legal liability arises out of statutes.

For example, in tax law, usually only the employer is responsible for paying taxes, but an employee who is responsible for handling withholding taxes and payroll is also personally responsible if withholding taxes are not paid.

Similarly, in employment law, managers and payroll officials can be held personally responsible for failure to pay minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act, even though not all employees are responsible for these violations and even though the contractual employment relationship whose terms were illegal is with the employer and not the employee.

As a third example, members of a corporate board of directors often have personal liability for distributing dividends to shareholders when the corporation is insolvent, to unpaid creditors, even though usually, members of a corporate board of directors are not personally responsible for paying the corporation's creditors.

Shield Laws Are Something Different

Oregon has a "shield law" but this is a form of evidentiary privilege available to reporters and is not related to tort liability.

Oregon’s shield law, ORS 44.510 through ORS 44.540, provides broad protection for reporters and others against compelled testimony, production of evidence and searches.

This law protects people connected with, employed by or engaged in a medium of public communication, including print and broadcast media, books, periodicals, pamphlets, wire services or feature syndicates. The protection extends beyond information related to news and includes unpublished notes, out-takes, photographs, tapes or other information, regardless of whether it is related to published information.

The statutes protect reporters from being compelled to disclose: (1) a source of information obtained in the course of work, regardless of whether the information has been published; and (2) unpublished information obtained or gathered in the course of work. Reporters also are protected from searches of their papers, effects or work premises, unless there is probable cause to believe the reporter has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime.

The protection is not limited to situations where a relationship or pledge of confidentiality exists. The protection is not lost if the reporter: (1) disclosed the information, source or related information elsewhere; or (2) ceases to be connected with, employed by or engaged in a medium of public communication.

Of course, the shield law, like most legal principles, has some exceptions.

  • 1
    What about situations where e.g. an employee who packs boxes receives instruction about what products require hazmat labeling, but the instruction fails to identify some categories of products requiring such labels, and a shipping agent is injured because an employee who was never told to label boxes containing a certain product failed to do so? Are low-level employees supposed to predict that their employee might have failed to correctly inform them of the actual requirements for hazmat labeling?
    – supercat
    Commented May 6 at 21:47
  • @supercat Employees have the same level of liability as a sole proprietor doing the same task would. Sometimes, a mistake of law is an excuse and may deprive an employee of at least criminal intent, but usually that isn't the case.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 6 at 21:50
  • Would the notion of "reasonable person" associated with negligence torts be different for an employee working on a packing line, versus the people responsible for training? I.e. could an employee claim that a reasonable person given similar training would likely have behaved in a manner similar to what the employee actually did, while a reasonable person responsible for training should be expected to make more efforts to ensure that they learned the rules from a reliable source? Alternatively, would the trainer have a stronger duty of care than the employee?
    – supercat
    Commented May 6 at 22:07
  • @supercat The legal standard would ordinarily be very generic but there would be lots of legal wrangling over what the care of a reasonable person under the circumstances would do in particular cases. Ultimately, it is decided by a judge or jury on a case by case basis. Reasonable care standards will ordinarily be higher for licensed professionals than it is for ordinary unskilled rank and file employees. Some of it depends upon the plaintiff's theory of the case and the kind of negligence alleged.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 6 at 22:25

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