Employer’s Liability Does Have Limits

By Caitlin Connell

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Employers know they must take steps to prevent and manage harassment and discrimination in the workplace. But a recent case helps set some boundaries on that liability.

Montague v. AMN Healthcare, Inc. addressed the unique situation of a health care employee poisoning another coworker.  Given the fact the dispute arose at work, and the poison was a supply of the workplace, a lawsuit was filed and went on appeal.

After a few disagreements at work, an employee took the opportunity to pour carbolic acid into a water bottle that the plaintiff left at work.  The plaintiff then drank from her water bottle.  She survived but understandably suffered an unpleasant reaction.

The plaintiff sued AMN, the staffing company that employed and provided the coworker to Kaiser, on theories of vicarious liability and negligence. The staffing company argued these theories failed because the coworker was a “special” employee of Kaiser at the time of the incident, absolving the staffing company of liability during the period the coworker worked at Kaiser.

On appeal, the Court did not reach the merits of the staffing company’s argument, but instead focused on the issue of vicarious liability.  The issue of vicarious liability of an employer turns on whether the coworker acted outside the course and scope of her employment in poisoning the plaintiff.  Courts decide that question based on whether the conduct was required or incidental to an employee’s duties and whether the conduct was reasonably foreseeable due to the employer’s business.

The plaintiff did not present any evidence of the coworker’s job duties at Kaiser, such as whether her duties involved the use of carbolic acid.  It also was not clear whether the coworker committed the poisoning during work hours. Finally, the plaintiff did not present evidence that the work-related disagreements, rather than the coworker’s personal animosity toward the plaintiff unrelated to work, motivated the poisoning.  This final issue is critical, because an injury inflicted out of an employee’s personal malice, not prompted by the employment, will absolve the employer of the claim.

The Court found the poisoning highly unusual and startling.  Because the act was not foreseeable, the claim failed.

The last issue decided by the court concerned the plaintiff’s remaining claim for negligent training.  This is an important finding because employees often claim that proper training would have prevented an incident of workplace discrimination or harm.  This claim was dismissed as speculative, because the plaintiff presented only an inference that the staffing agency’s failure to train the coworker how to avoid workplace violence may have caused the plaintiff’s injury.

Social media can be used to help or hurt a case. The one truism is that in a world full of phone cameras and tag technology, the truth will come out more often with a focused and proven discovery plan.

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Caitlin Connell is a business, commercial and real estate litigation associate at Patton & Sullivan LLP. For questions or comments she can be reached at caitlin@pattonsullivan.com.

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