As far as at least one court is concerned, the presence of a jobsite supervisor is enough to make a company liable for the actions of its employees on the job.

Last week, the Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed a judgment against Atlantic Environmental Construction Company (AEC) using what the court says was the proper application of respondeat superior principles.

According to Law.com, respondeat superior is “a key doctrine in the law of agency, which provides that a principal (employer) is responsible for the actions of his/her/its agent (employee) in the ‘course of employment.’”

Working on the roof of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk near an open skylight in March 2011, AEC workers were observed by inspectors from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry (VDLI). At the time, the workers failed to use proper fall-protection equipment, which resulted in two citations against AEC for serious violations of the VOSHA standards for fall protection. A third citation was vacated during litigation.

According to court documents, two workers were observed walking next to a glass skylight, and two were “sitting at the edge of the skylight.” Most of the workers were without a “fall arrest system,” and the skylight did not have a cover. Additionally, no guardrail system was installed.

“VLDI also showed that AEC’s site supervisor had been present at the job site and knew of the safety violations,” reads an opinion by Judge D. Arthur Kelsey. “AEC conceded these facts but argued that the supervisor had an exemplary work record and that it was wholly unforeseeable he would have countenanced such basic violations of VOSHA safety rules.”

The AEC argued that because of those factors, the company couldn’t be held liable for the safety violations under respondeat superior principles. It also took the position that even if it could be held liable, it would be entitled to assert an employee misconduct defense recognized in Virginia law.

Built into the definition of the code that holds a company liable is, according to court documents, the caveat that “No matter the gravity of the risk of harm, a serious violation cannot be found if ‘the employer did not, and could not with the exercise of reasonable diligence, know of the presence of the violation.’”

However, under respondeat superior principles, if a company has knowledge that employees committing the violations are under the watch of a “job foreman” or “supervisor,” the company is liable because said supervisor essentially serves as an arm of the company itself.

Kelsey cites a similar case’s conclusion as evidence: “When a corporate employer entrusts to a supervisory employee its duty to assume employee compliance with safety standards, it is reasonable to charge the employer with the supervisor’s knowledge … It is reasonable to do this because a corporate employer can, of course, only act through its agents … and the supervisor acts as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the absent employer. That makes his knowledge the employer’s knowledge.”

With that, the court upheld an appeal by AEC, and the company will still remain liable for the safety violations.

AEC did not return request for comment from USGNN.com™ as of press time.