If one of your co-workers tries to kill you, can you sue your boss?  How about if the co-worker was employed by a temp agency, can you sue the temp agency?  These were the questions put before the Fourth Appellate District when it heard the case of Montague v. AMN Healthcare, Inc. ___ Cal. App. 4th ___ (2014) (Fourth Appellate District, filed 2/21/14).  The Court delivered its opinion on February 21, 2014 affirming the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment to AMN Healthcare.  

It is a long-standing rule in Torts law that a person’s employer is generally liable for acts committed by that person while at work as long as the act was within the scope of employment.  This theory of liability is known as respondeat superior.  A person will be considered to be at work if s/he is engaged in an activity during the hours of his/her employment on behalf of his/her employer’s business.  A person is considered to be within the scope of employment if his/her actions are “(1) required by or incidental to the employee’s duties, or (2) [they] are reasonably foreseeable in light of the employer’s business.” Montague v. AMN Healthcare, Inc. 

In this case, AMN Healthcare, Inc. doing business as Nursefinders provides prescreened nurses to staff hospitals and medical offices.  Nursefinders hired Theresa Drummond and referred her to Kaiser.  Theresa Drummond, at some point, developed an enmity with her fellow employee at Kaiser Sarah Montague. Drummond and Montague had at least a couple of arguments, including one incident where they disagreed as to how to stock rooms.  Several weeks after the stocking argument, Montague drank from a water bottle that she had left at work the previous day.  After drinking, Montague fell violently ill.  Drummond later would confess that she poisoned the water bottle by pouring in carbolic acid.  Sarah Montague would later file suit against Nursefinders for respondeat superior and negligence in their hiring and training of Theresa Drummond.

The Appellate Court held that Theresa Drummond was not an employee of Nursefinders for the purposes of respondeat superior liability.  Moreover, the Court held that even if she was considered an employee of Nursefinders, the poisoning of Sarah Montague was outside the scope of her employment.  When a person is hired by one entity as a “general” employee and then works for another as a “special” employee, the “general” employer is has no liability under the respondeat superior theory if the “general” employer has relinquished total control to the “special” employer.  Here, Drummond was hired and trained by Nursefinders and then relinquished total control of Drummond to Kaiser during the course of her employment there.  Thus, the Court held that Nursefinders were not liable under the respondeat superior theory.

The Fourth Appellate District also held that even if the respondeat superior theory applied to Nursefinders in this case, Drummond’s actions were outside the scope of employment.  There is a two prong test that was described above that demonstrates whether a person’s acts fall within the scope of employment.  No evidence was presented that showed that Montague’s poisoning was required by or incidental to Drummond’s employment.  

Generally, intentional acts are not considered to be within the scope of one’s employment, but if the act was the result of a workplace dispute then respondeat superior theory applies.  A court will consider something a workplace dispute if the two parties disagree over some issue regarding their mutual work.  Here, Drummond and Montague did have a dispute over a work issue, but that was weeks before the incident in question and there was no evidence presented that this was a workplace dispute and not a personal enmity.  Even if this was a workplace dispute, that would make Kaiser the liable party due to Drummond’s and Montague’s mutual employment there, not Nursefinders.

Finally, the Court held that Nursefinders was not negligent in training Drummond, because no training was needed to tell Drummond that she should not poison her fellow employees.  An employer is required to properly train its employees and are liable for acts or omissions made by the employee if such an act or omission would have been corrected with training that is standard in the industry.  Here, Montague tried to demonstrate that Nursefinders failed to provide training in violence at the workplace.  Nursefinders provided evidence of two training courses that they gave to Drummond, but Montague countered that with deposition testimony from Drummond saying that she received no training from Nursefinders.  The Court found the deposition testimony unconvincing because it was vague.  Nonetheless, the Court reasoned that even if Nursefinders did not train Drummond on violence in the workplace, there are some acts that do not require one to be told that they are against the rules and policies of one’s employer.  The Court applied that common-sense precedent to this case and held that Drummond did not need to be trained to know that she should not have poisoned a co-worker.

Therefore, the Fourth Appellate District upheld longstanding precedent in holding that the poisoning of Montague was not the fault of Nursefinders, because they had relinquished control over Drummond.  Even if they had not, the poisoning was an intentional act that was outside the scope of Drummond’s employment.  Finally, the Court reasoned that Nursefinders did train Drummond on workplace violence, but even if they did not, Drummond should have known that you should not poison your co-workers.

So is one’s employer liable when someone tries to poison his/her co-worker?  No . . . Unless it does arise from a workplace dispute or the person is acting within the scope of his/her employment.  Please continue to come back to our blog for more information on the latest legal developments.

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