The increased use of staffing agencies to place employees into the workforce has led to a growing number of court decisions regarding the responsibility of such agencies for the actions of the individuals placed.

Recently, a California Court of Appeals granted summary judgment in favor of a staffing agency sued by an individual whose drinking water was poisoned by an employee placed by the agency into a medical practice. Montague v. AMN Healthcare, Inc., Cal. Ct. of Appeal, 4th Dist., No. D063385, February 21, 2014.

AMN Healthcare, Inc. (“Nursefinders”) is a staffing company that prescreens and places nurses and medical personnel with hospitals and other facilities. Nursefinders hired an employee (“Drummond”) to work as a medical assistant, and then assigned that individual to work at a customer’s medical facility.
While there, and after two minor disagreements with a coworker (“Montague”), Drummond admittedly put carbolic acid into Montague’s water bottle. Montague then sued Nursefinders, alleging that Nursefinders was vicariously liable for the poisoning, and further alleging that Nursefinders had failed to train Drummond properly on workplace disputes. The lower court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of Nursefinders, and Montague appealed that decision.

The appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision in favor of the staffing company, finding that Drummond acted outside the course and scope of her employment with Nursefinders.

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is vicariously liable for the actions of its employees if those actions are committed within the scope of the employment. To succeed on a claim of respondeat superior, Montague had to show that Drummond’s action had a “causal nexus” to Drummond’s work responsibilities. Questions typically asked by a court when making this determination are whether the actual occurrence was a generally foreseeable consequence of the job, and whether an employee’s conduct is so unusual or startling that it would seem unfair to include the loss resulting from it among other costs of the employer’s business.

The dispute between Drummond and Montague was based upon their mutual employment with the medical facility, and not on Drummond’s employment with Nursefinders. Although Montague attempted to establish respondeat superior liability for Nursefinders based on the fact that she and Drummond worked together, the court found that attempt to be unsuccessful, finding the fact that “the employment brought tortfeasor and victim together in time and place is not enough" to establish liability.

Montague also alleged that Nursefinders should have trained Drummond regarding the proper handling of work-related disputes and that its failure to do so caused the harm suffered by Montague. However, Nursefinders provided testimony and evidence that Drummond participated in initial orientation, which included instruction on the medical facilities policies on "Violence in the Workplace" and "Management of Threats and Aggressive Behavior."

Although Montague argued that Drummond’s actions were evidence that the training was insufficient and therefore negligent, the court disagreed, and found that Montague was unable to support her negligence claim against Nursefinders.

This case was decided under California state law, but employers – including staffing companies – in other locations should be cognizant of its holdings. First, a written job description that outlines the duties of each employee can assist in determining whether an action is a generally foreseeable consequence of the individual’s job-related responsibilities. In addition, documentation of training in general human resources policies and, in the case of a staffing agency, the policies of the company into which a staffing person will be placed, can assist in avoiding unintended liability for actions not reasonably related to job responsibilities.