In Montague, et al. v. AMN Healthcare, Inc., a California appellate court held that a staffing agency was not liable when one of its employees poisoned another employee at a customer’s facility.

AMN Healthcare, Inc. dba Nursefinders (“AMN”), a medical professional staffing agency, hired Theresa Drummond as a medical assistant and placed her at a Kaiser facility. Drummond got into a minor argument with a co-worker, Sara Montague. Shortly thereafter, she poured carbolic acid into Montague’s water bottle, which caused her tongue and throat to burn and eventually made her vomit. When confronted, Drummond admitted to the conduct.

Montague sued Drummond and AMN for various causes of action. The lower court granted AMN’s motion for summary judgment, which argued that it was not liable since (1) Drummond was a “special employee” of Kaiser and/or (2) she acted outside the course and scope of her employment when she poisoned a co-worker.

The appellate court agreed with the lower court, although it sidestepped the issue of whether Drummond was a special employee of Kaiser since it found that she acted outside the course and scope of her employment, thus absolving either employer of vicarious liability. However, the court noted that although staffing agencies often have a co-employer relationship with the company they provide workers to, the general employer (i.e., the staffing agency) is “absolved” of vicarious liability when “it has relinquished total control” to the special employer (i.e., Kaiser). In addition, it held that while the general employer relinquishes control to the special employer, the special employer becomes “solely liable” for vicarious liability for the employee’s job-related torts.

This case is a good reminder that staffing agencies, although useful, do not totally insulate employers from liability.