Thank you, law school.
I had always had a suspicion that my previous employer was utilizing a dodgy legal tactic to screw me over, but now I KNOW they were utilizing a dodgy legal tactic to screw me over. Moreover, I know that the legal interpretation they used was either incomplete or based on idiocy (which wouldn’t surprise me), and likely wouldn’t hold up in court anyway.
My employer had labeled its tutors independent contractors, for what I assume were tax concerns. This designation always struck me as particularly inapt, though I never had the tools to explain why. Now I do, thanks to a subdoctrine of negligence in tort law. You see, employers can be held liable for the negligent conduct of their employees under the doctrine of respondeat superior, arguing essentially that when an employee is acting for the business purposes of his/her employer, the employer should be responsible.
This does not hold true for independent contractors as long as the contractor has the freedom to complete performance as he/she sees fit. This makes sense, but of course some crafty employers tried to label all of their employees independent contractors to avoid liability (c.f. my former employer). To combat this, the law has the concept of apparent authority, which essentially disallows an abdication of authority/responsibility just by formally calling employees independent contractors. As long as the employer controls the manner by which work is to be completed, the employer is still liable under respondeat superior. My employer very much controlled the manner of work by providing its tutors with a set curriculum and a strongly preferred (and often imposed) means of communicating and teaching that curriculum. They had an apparent authority, and as such calling their tutors independent contractors is somewhat of a misnomer.
None of this particularly helps me after the fact, but it’s good to know that if I had committed some tort action while teaching, my employer would have been just as screwed as I.