Vicarous Liability Limitations for Actions Outside Scope of Employment of Temporary Worker

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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Sara Montague, et al. v. AMN Healthcare, Inc. -

Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District (February 21, 2014) -

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is vicariously liable for the torts of its employees only when those torts are committed within the scope of the employment. For an employer to be liable for an intentional tort, the employee’s act must have some causal nexus to the employee’s work.   This case addresses the question of whether a medical staffing company that provides personnel to hospitals can be held liable for the torts of one of its medical assistants.

AMN Healthcare, Inc., dba Nursefinders (“Nursefinders”) is a staffing company that provides medical personnel to hospitals and medical facilities.  Nursefinders hired Theresa Drummond as a medical assistant and assigned her to work at a Kaiser facility, where she worked with Sara Montague, another medical assistant. At some point, Drummond and Montague had a disagreement at work.  A few weeks after the disagreement, Drummond poured carbolic acid into Montague’s water bottle; and Montague later drank from the contaminated bottle, resulting in injuries to her throat.

Montague sued Drummond and Nursefinders for negligence.  As to Nursefinders, Montague also alleged battery, negligence per se and intentional infliction of emotional distress under a theory of respondeat superior.  She claimed that Nursefinders should be held vicariously liable for Drummond’s actions, as well as for negligent hiring, training and supervision of Drummond. Nursefinders moved for summary judgment, arguing that the causes of action based on respondeat superior liability failed because Drummond was a special employee of Kaiser, or that she acted outside the course and scope of her employment.  The trial court granted the motion, finding that the claims based on respondeat superior failed because Drummond was a “special employee” of Kaiser.  The trial court also concluded that there was no triable issue of fact regarding negligent hiring or supervision.  Montague appealed.

In affirming the trial court’s ruling, the Court of Appeal found it unnecessary to address the issue of special employment because, even assuming that Nursefinders retained some control over Drummond so as to render it jointly and severally liable for her acts, Montague’s vicarious liability claims failed on the alternative ground that Drummond acted outside the course and scope of her employment.

The Court referred to California jury instruction 3720 regarding the test for respondeat superior.  According to the instructions, the conduct of an employee falls within the scope of his or her employment if the conduct either: (1) is required by or incidental to the employee’s duties, or (2) it is reasonably foreseeable in light of the employer’s business.  The court first considered whether Drummond’s acts were required by or incidental to her employment with Nursefinders.  Montague presented no evidence regarding the scope of Drummond’s employment with either Nursefinders or Kaiser. It was also unknown whether Drummond committed the poisoning during working hours.

The court next considered whether Nursefinders could have reasonably foreseen that Drummond would poison a coworker.  It determined that there was no causal nexus between the injury and a work-related dispute because here, the injury was inflicted out of the employee’s personal malice.  Further, even if the poisoning had arisen from a work-related dispute, the dispute concerned Drummond and Montague’s mutual employment with Kaiser, not Nursefinders.  In addition, the court noted that public policy factors underlying the doctrine of respondeat superior do not support the imposition of vicarious liability to Nursefinders under these facts, because the potential for civil and criminal liability provides a deterrent to the type of aberrant conduct that Drummond committed.  Finally, Nursefinders derived no benefit from Drummond’s conduct and it would be inequitable to shift the loss to Nursefinders.

With respect to Montague’s claims against Nursefinders for negligent training, the court found that there was insufficient evidence to support an inference of negligent training by Nursefinders. Summary judgment in favor of Nursefinders was upheld. 

COMMENT

This common-sense decision provides positive guidance on tort liability for staffing company employers.  While there may be vicarious liability for actions of temporary employees provided by staffing companies, where the employee’s actions are outside the scope of the employee’s duties for the special employer, courts will not hold the staffing company vicariously liable either.

For a copy of the complete decision, see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/D063385M.PDF

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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