Can an Employer be Liable for a Co-worker Poisoning?

By Robyn McKibbin, Esq.

A medical staffing company hired an employee to work as a medical assistant and then placed that employee to work at a customer’s hospital. The employee had a disagreement with a coworker, which the coworker did not think was serious enough to report. A few weeks later, the coworker took a sip from her water bottle. Her tongue and throat started to burn and she vomited. The placement employee admitted that she poured carbolic acid from an examination room used to treat patients with foot issues into the water bottle.The coworker sued the employee and the staffing company alleging negligent hiring and supervision and battery, among other claims. The staffing company filed summary judgment, which was granted. The coworker appealed.

An employer may be liable for the tortious conduct of its employees if the conduct was committed within the scope and course of employment. For an employer to be liable for an intentional tort, the employee’s act must have a “causal nexus to the employee’s work.” This nexus has been defined as an “outgrowth” of the employment; a risk “inherent in the working environment;” a risk “typical” to the employer’s business, or a “foreseeable consequence” of the employer’s business.

If an employee substantially deviates from his/her duties for personal purposes, the employer is not vicariously liable for the employee’s actions. The Court found that there was no evidence that the work-related dispute motivated the employee’s actions as opposed to her personal animosity to the coworker. Further, the poisoning was “highly unusual and startling” and was unrelated to the employment. Also, although invoking vicarious liability would provide greater assurance of compensation to victims, it would be inequitable to shift the loss to the staffing company because it derived no benefit from the conduct.

The Court then addressed the coworker’s argument that the staffing company negligently failed to train the employee on the proper handling of work-related disputes. The evidence established that the staffing company trained the employee on violence in the workplace and the “Management of Threats and Aggressive Behavior.” The coworker argued that because the employee was trained on workplace violence and the incident occurred, the staffing company breached its duty to properly train the employee. While the training was not specifically explained, the Court held that there was no reasonable basis to conclude that the poisoning was somehow the result of the staffing company’s failure to make clear that such not conduct would not be considered acceptable behavior.

This case serves as a reminder of the importance of workplace violence training.

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