AMN Healthcare did business as "Nursefinders," a staffing agency that provides prescreened nurses and medical personnel to hospitals and other health care facilities.  Theresa Drummond was hired by Nursefinders as a medical assistant and assigned to a Kaiser facility.  Drummond worked with another medical assistant, Sara Montague.  Drummond and Montague had some disagreements at work, but none ever so serious to report to a supervisor.

A few weeks after a disagreement between Drummond and Montague, Montague left her water bottle at her desk.  She later took a sip from the bottle and her tongue and throat started to burn and she vomited.  Drummond admitted that she poured carbolic acid she found in an exam room into the water bottle.

Montague sued Nursefinders for negligence, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress under a theory of respondeat superior.  Nursefinders moved for summary judgment on the theory that Drummond was a special employee of Kaiser and acted outside the scope of her employment when poisoning Montague.  The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment and Montague appealed.

When an employer sends an employee to do work for another person and both have a right to exercise certain control over the employee, that employee may be considered to have two employers.  The original employer, in this case Nursefinders, is the general employee, while the second employer, here Kaiser, is the special employer.  A general employer will not be found to have respondeat superior liability where it has relinquished total control to the special employer.  The court here never fully decided if Nursefinders is absolved of responsibility, because it instead ruled that Montague's claims failed because Drummond was acting outside the scope of her employment.

Under the theory of respondeat superior, an employer is only vicariously liable if the employee's actions were committed in the scope of employment.  The act must have a "causal nexus" to the employee's work, or be an outgrowth of the employment.  Courts look to see if the conduct either is required by or incidental to the employee's duties, or if it is reasonably foreseeable in light of the employee's business.

The court held that while an injury arising out of a work-place dispute may have such a causal nexus to employment, an injury inflicted out of personal malice does not.  Montague presented no evidence to show that the two relatively minor disagreements Montague cited in her case were the motivations for Drummond's poisoning of the water bottle.  Even if the poisoning arose out of the earlier disagreements between the two women, the dispute concerned their mutual employment with Kaiser, not Nursefinders.

Montague also was unable to show that Nursefinders was negligent in its hiring or training of Drummond.  Drummond did receive training in Nursefinders orientation, which included topics on workplace violence and Kaiser procedures and policies regarding violence in the workplace and aggressive behavior.  Montague cannot survive the summary judgment claim simply because it may be possible that Nursefinders did not actually provide the training it says it did and that lack of training might have been related to Drummond's otherwise unusual and aggressive actions.  The court upheld the dismissal of Montague's case against Nursefinders.

Montague v. AMN Healthcare, Inc. – Cal.Rptr. -, 2014 WL 659690