Plaintiff Fails to Prove that Lack of Training Led to Intentional Poisoning

The case of Montague v. AMN Healthcare, Inc., 223 Cal. App. 4th 1515, 168 Cal. Rptr. 3d 123 (2014) arises out of an intentional act of one person putting carbolic acid in the water bottle of a co-worker to cause harm. The plaintiff brought suit against AMN Healthcare on the basis that the staffing agency had failed to provide the proper training to the tortfeasor, which caused or contributed to the situation that culminated in the poisoning. The California Court of Appeal determined that the staffing company was not vicariously liable for the actions of the tortfeasor while assigned to a job at the hospital where the plaintiff was poisoned.

Facts of the Case

The defendant AMN Healthcare, Inc., d/b/a Nursefinders, is a staffing agency that places medical personnel in temporary positions at hospitals and other healthcare facilities. The tortfeasor, Theresa Drummond, was assigned to a hospital to work as a medical assistant. Plaintiff, Sara Montague, was employed at that hospital as a medical assistant. While Drummond was working at the hospital, there were conflicts between her and Montague involving stock room organization and lab slips that had gone missing. These conflicts did not rise to the level that Montague felt it necessary to report the problem to supervisors at the hospital. Weeks after the agreements, Drummond allegedly poured a caustic substance, carbolic acid, into Montague’s water bottle. After Montague drank from the bottle, she became ill.

Montague brought suit against AMN Healthcare on the basis of vicarious liability, asserting that the staffing agency should have provided better training to Drummond. AMN Healthcare moved for the dismissal of Montague’s action and the trial court granted the defendant’s motion. Montague appealed the dismissal.

The Legal Decision

In order to prevail on a claim of vicarious liability, a person must prove that the actions of the employee were carried out as part of the scope of that individual’s employment. In this case, Montague would have to prove that Drummond’s actions in placing the poison in Montague’s water bottle were done within the scope of her job as a medical assistant. A trier-of-fact could find AMN Healthcare liable for Drummond’s actions if Montague were able to prove that there was a “causal nexus to the employee’s work.”

Montague based her argument for vicarious liability on the premise that the alleged act of poisoning arose out of the earlier conflicts between Drummond and Montague. Plaintiff’s legal argument was that the work conflict led directly to the act of poisoning the water bottle. However, the appellate court held that plaintiff had failed to meet her burden in demonstrating that the purported poisoning happened because of the work conflict, rather than personal animosity that existed between Montague and Drummond. One of the facts that the court referenced was that the work conflict happened weeks before Drummond allegedly placed the poisonous substance in Montague’s bottle. In addition, the work conflict was not serious enough to prompt Montague to report the encounter to her supervisors.

Plaintiff also based her claims against AMN Healthcare on a failure to provide proper training to Drummond relating to the avoidance of workplace violence. In evaluating these claims, the appellate court analyzed whether AMN Healthcare had, in fact, provided training to Drummond on how to prevent or avoid workplace violence and determined that defendant had trained Drummond in this regard. Montague pointed to the existence of the training as evidence that it was not conducted properly since Drummond had engaged in violence in the workplace by allegedly placing the poison in Montague’s water bottle. The appellate court determined that this argument was too speculative to survive a motion for summary judgement at the trial court level and upheld the lower court’s grant of summary judgment.

Impact of the Case

Tort liability is a serious consideration for all employers who send their employees out into the world out of the direct control of the employer. Vicarious liability claims can lead to serious litigation and large monetary awards. The decision in the Montague case emphasizes the importance of providing training to employees before placing them into situations that could lead to interpersonal conflicts. In this case, the court based its decision on an assumption that training employees on avoiding workplace violence was appropriate. There are many other issues that could arise and it is important for an employer to understand the extent of their responsibility in order to avoid a successful claim of vicarious liability.

An employer always must be cognizant of the potential for an employee to commit an act that leads to another person’s harm in order to avoid costly litigation. In order to discuss this or other employment matters, contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside, and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.