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21.5 Summary and Exercises


A contract made by an agent on behalf of the principal legally binds the principal. Three types of authority may bind the principal: (1) express authority—that which is actually given and spelled out, (2) implied authority—that which may fairly be inferred from the parties’ relationship and which is incidental to the agent’s express authority, and (3) apparent authority—that which reasonably appears to a third party under the circumstances to have been given by the principal. Even in the absence of authority, a principal may ratify the agent’s acts.

The principal may be liable for tortious acts of the agent but except under certain regulatory statutes may not be held criminally liable for criminal acts of agents not prompted by the principal. Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, a principal is generally liable for acts by a servant within the scope of employment. A principal usually will not be held liable for acts of nonservant agents that cause physical damage, although he will be held liable for nonphysical torts, such as misrepresentation. The principal will not be held liable for tortious acts of independent contractors, although the principal may be liable for injuries resulting from his failure to act in situations in which he was not legally permitted to delegate a duty to act. Whenever an agent is acting to further the principal’s business interests, the principal will be held vicariously liable for the agent’s intentional torts. What constitutes scope of employment is not easy to determine; the modern trend is to hold a principal liable for the conduct of an agent if it was foreseeable that the agent might act as he did.

Most states have special rules of vicarious liability for special situations; for example, liability of an automobile owner for use by another. Spouses are not vicariously liable for each other, nor are parents for children, except for failing to control children known to be dangerous.

In general, an agent is not personally liable on contracts he has signed on behalf of a principal. This general rule has several exceptions recognized in most states: (1) when the agent is serving an undisclosed or partially disclosed principal, (2) when the agent lacks authority or exceeds his authority, and (3) if the agent entered into the contract in a personal capacity.

The agency relationship may be terminated by mutual consent, by express agreement of the parties that the agency will end at a certain time or on the occurrence of a certain event, or by an implied agreement arising out of the circumstances in each case. The agency may also be unilaterally revoked by the principal—unless the agency is coupled with an interest—or renounced by the agent. Finally, the agency will terminate by operation of law under certain circumstances, such as death of the principal or agent.


  1. Parke-Bernet Galleries, acting as agent for an undisclosed principal, sold a painting to Weisz. Weisz later discovered that the painting was a forgery and sued Parke-Bernet for breach of contract. In defense, Parke-Bernet argued that as a general rule, agents are not liable on contracts made for principals. Is this a good defense? Explain.
  2. Lynch was the loan officer at First Bank. Patterson applied to borrow $25,000. Bank policy required that Lynch obtain a loan guaranty from Patterson’s employer, a milk company. The manager of the milk company visited the bank and signed a guaranty on behalf of the company. The last paragraph of the guaranty stated, “This guaranty is signed by an officer having legal right to bind the company through authorization of the Board of Directors.” Should Lynch be satisfied with this guaranty? Would he be satisfied if the president of the milk company, who was also a director, affirmed that the manager had authority to sign the guaranty? Explain.
  3. Ralph owned a retail meat market. Ralph’s agent Sam, without authority but purporting to act on Ralph’s behalf, borrowed $7,500 from Ted. Although he never received the money, Ralph repaid $700 of the alleged loan and promised to repay the rest. If Sam had no authority to make the loan, is Ralph liable? Why?
  4. A guest arrived early one morning at the Hotel Ohio. Clemens, a person in the hotel office who appeared to be in charge, walked behind the counter, registered the guest, gave him a key, and took him to his room. The guest also checked valuables (a diamond pin and money) with Clemens, who signed a receipt on behalf of the hotel. Clemens in fact was a roomer at the hotel, not an employee, and had no authority to act on behalf of the hotel. When Clemens absconded with the valuables, the guest sued the hotel. Is the hotel liable? Why?
  5. A professional basketball player punched an opposing player in the face during the course of a game. The opponent, who was seriously injured, sued the owner of the team for damages. A jury awarded the player $222,000 [about $800,000 in 2010 dollars] for medical expenses, $200,000 [$700,000] for physical pain, $275,000 [$963,000] for mental anguish, $1,000,000 [$3.5 million] for lost earnings, and $1,500,000 [$5.2 million] in punitive damages (which was $500,000 more than requested by the player). The jury also awarded $50,000 [$150,000] to the player’s wife for loss of companionship. If we assume that the player who threw the punch acted out of personal anger and had no intention to further the business, how could the damage award against his principal be legally justified?
  6. A doctor in a University of Chicago hospital seriously assaulted a patient in an examining room. The patient sued the hospital on the theory that the doctor was an agent or employee of the hospital and the assault occurred within the hospital. Is the hospital liable for the acts of its agent? Why?
  7. Hector was employed by a machine shop. One day he made a delivery for his employer and proceeded back to the shop. When he was four miles from the shop and on the road where it was located, he turned left onto another road to visit a friend. The friend lived five miles off the turnoff. On the way to the friend’s house, Hector caused an accident. The injured person sued Hector’s employer. Is the employer liable? Discuss.
  8. A fourteen-year-old boy, who had no driver’s license, took his parents’ car without permission and caused an automobile accident. A person injured in the accident sued the boy’s parents under the relevant state’s Parental Responsibility Law (mentioned in Section 21.2.1 "Principal’s Tort Liability"). Are the parents liable? Discuss.
  9. In the past decades the Catholic Church has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in damage awards to people—mostly men—who claimed that when they were boys and teenagers they were sexually abused by their local parish priests, often on Church premises. That is, the men claimed they had been victims of child rape. Obviously, such behavior is antithetical to any reasonable standard of clergy behavior: the priests could not have been in the scope of employment. How is the Church liable?

Self-Test Questions

  1. Authority that legally may bind the principal includes

    1. implied authority
    2. express authority
    3. apparent authority
    4. all of the above
  2. As a general rule, a principal is not

    1. liable for tortious acts of an agent, even when the principal is negligent
    2. liable for acts of a servant within the scope of employment
    3. criminally liable for acts of the agent
    4. liable for nondelegable duties performed by independent contractors
  3. An agent may be held personally liable on contracts signed on behalf of a principal when

    1. the agent is serving an undisclosed or partially disclosed principal
    2. the agent exceeds his authority
    3. the agent entered into the contract in a personal capacity
    4. all of the above are true
  4. An agency relationship may be terminated by

    1. an implied agreement arising out of the circumstances
    2. mutual consent of parties
    3. death of the principal or agent
    4. all of the above
  5. The principal’s liability for the agent’s acts of which the principal had no knowledge or intention to commit is called

    1. contract liability
    2. implied liability
    3. respondeat superior
    4. all of the above

Self-Test Answers

  1. d
  2. c
  3. d
  4. c
  5. b