Respondeat Superior: Staffing Companies

Montague v. AMN Healthcare, Inc., (Fourth District, February 21, 2014) — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2014 WL 659690

A hospital employee who was injured when a coworker intentionally placed carbolic acid in her water bottle following a dispute at work, filed suit against the coworker and the staffing company which had hired her and assigned her to work at the hospital. The plaintiff alleged causes of action against the staffing company under a theory of respondeat superior for negligence, battery, negligence per se and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She also alleged that the staffing company had negligently hired, retained, supervised and trained the coworker.

The trial court granted the staffing company’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the claims based on respondeat superior liability failed because the undisputed evidence established that the coworker was a special employee of the hospital. The court also found that the plaintiff could not establish a triable issue of fact regarding negligent hiring, retention or supervision, and that the claim regarding negligent training failed due to lack of causation. The court of appeal affirmed, finding that “the employee acted outside the course and scope of her employment”:

Nursefinders presented evidence that it is a staffing agency that Drummond did not work for; rather, Drummond applied for medical assistant positions through Nursefinders. Drummond obtained a medical assistant position at Kaiser through Nursefinders. This evidence satisfied Nursefinders initial burden of showing that Drummond’s acts were not required by or incidental to her employment with Nursefinders or that her acts were reasonably foreseeable in light of Nursefinders’s business. …

Even assuming the evidence supports an inference that the poisoning arose out of a work-related dispute that occurred weeks earlier, the dispute concerned Drummond and Montague’s mutual employment with Kaiser, not Nursefinders. Montague’s attempt to establish respondeat superior liability for Nursefinders simply because she and Drummond worked together at Kaiser is misguided. “The nexus required for respondeat superior liability—that the tort be engendered by or arise from the work—is to be distinguished from ‘but for’ causation. That the employment brought tortfeasor and victim together in time and place is not enough.” … The facts, construed most favorably for Montague, do not support liability against Nursefinders because Drummond’s poisoning of Montague was highly unusual and startling….

Montague’s argument appears to be that because Nursefinders trained Drummond on avoiding workplace violence and the incident occurred, this evidence supports an inference that Nursefinders must have breached its duty to train Drummond in avoiding workplace violence and this breach caused her injuries. We reject this contention as the suggested inferences are based on speculation and not reasonably deducible from the evidence. Montague “cannot survive summary judgment simply because it is possible” that Nursefinders breached a duty to provide training regarding the avoidance of workplace violence and that this breach “might have” caused her injury.

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