In a case that brings workplace conflict to a shocking level, the California Court of Appeals has ruled that a staffing agency cannot be held liable for a co-worker’s poisoning of another co-worker. Montague v. AMN Healthcare, Inc. (Cal. Ct. App. 2014).
The victim, Sara Montague, sued her employer, Nursefinders, after co-worker Theresa Drummond poisoned her water bottle. Montague and Drummond were assigned to the same client site, and had at least two disagreements prior to the incident. One disagreement was over how to stock rooms and another over misplaced lab slips. Several weeks later, Montague drank from her water bottle, which she had left at work, and experienced burning on her tongue and in her throat and vomiting. Drummond later admitted to pouring carbolic acid into Montague’s water bottle.
The court did not hold Nursefinders vicariously liable for Drummond’s actions because Drummond was motivated by “personal malice” and acted outside the scope of her employment. Under the legal theory of vicarious liability, employers can only be liable for employee actions within the scope of employment, such as those required by or incidental to the employee’s job duties or reasonably foreseeable in light of the employer’s business. Montague provided no evidence that Drummond used carbolic acid for work or that the poisoning occurred during work hours. The court rejected Montague’s argument Nursefinders could have foreseen Drummond’s actions due to their previous disagreements because the disagreements occurred several weeks earlier.
The court also rejected Montague’s negligent training claim against Nursefinders. Montague argued that because Nursefinders trained Drummond in avoiding workplace violence at new hire orientation and Drummond poisoned Montague, the company had breached its duty to train Drummond. Without concluding whether Nursefinders had a duty to train Drummond, the court rejected this claim as “based on speculation and not reasonably deducible from the evidence.”
This decision is good for employers because the court held that they are not responsible for their employees’ unforeseeable, non-work-related activities. However, it reminds employers that they can be responsible for employee actions within the employment scope. Obviously, this employer could not have anticipated its employee’s actions. Even so, employers should take all workplace conflicts seriously and treat them as performance issues. Employers should explain that employees can disagree, but they cannot let disagreements erupt into conflicts. Employers should set boundaries for acceptable behavior going forward, including the expectation that the employees take proactive steps to withdraw from potential future conflicts, and monitor the situation closely.