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Ira S. Bushey & Sons, Inc. v. United States

Citation. Ira S. Bushey & Sons, Inc. v. United States, 417 U.S. 976, 94 S. Ct. 3182, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1146 (U.S. June 17, 1974)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Ira S. Bushey’s (Plaintiff’s) drydock sustained damage when United States Coast Guard’s (Defendant’s) drunken employee, Lane, opened a valve. Defendant argues that it should not be liable because his employee acted outside the scope of employment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Even if an employee’s conduct is not motivated by his employer’s interests, an employer is still vicariously liable for an employee’s negligent acts if the employee’s conduct was reasonably foreseeable and within the scope of his employment.


Plaintiff was a private drydock owner. Lane was a seaman for the Defendant, who was walking back to the ship drunk one night and opened a valve. The valve controlled the drydock. As a result, the ship and part of the drydock both partially sank into the water. Plaintiff sued Defendant for damages. The district court granted Plaintiff compensation. Defendant appealed.


In this case, is an employer (Defendant) liable for the tortious acts of Lane, his employee?


Yes. Judgment affirmed.
* Defendant argued that the imposition of liability is improper because his employee was acting outside the scope of employment.
* The court found that employee’s conduct was not so “unforeseeable” as to make it unfair to impose liability on the Defendant. Employee was drunk and on his way back to the ship when caused damage to the ship. It is reasonably foreseeable that a drunk sailor might do damage to Plaintiff’s drydock while leaving and exiting the ship.
* The suggestion that imposition of liability here will lead to more intensive screening of employees rests on highly questionable premises. In this case, employee is in the navy.
* The fact that Defendant is better able to afford to pay the damage is not sufficient to justify legal responsibility. An employer’s vicarious liability rests on the sentiment that a business enterprise cannot justly disclaim responsibility for accidents, which may fairly be said to be characteristic of its activities.
* The outcome of the case would have been different had employee set fire to the bar where he had been drinking or caused an accident on the street. The liability of an employer does not reach into areas when the employee creates risks different from those attendant to the actives pursued by the employer.


In this case, the court found that the damage done to the dock was foreseeable. When Defendant grants access and quarters on the boat to drunken sailors, it is predictable that damage will be done to nearby surroundings, such as Plaintiff’s dock. The imposition of vicarious liability is appropriate in this case because damage done to a dock is within the possible normal and everyday actives of a ship owner.

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