In Montague v. AMN Healthcare, ___ Cal.App.4th ___  (Feb. 21, 2014), the California Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) affirmed the ruling of the San Diego County Superior Court (Judge Denton) granting summary judgment in favor of a staffing company whose employee had poisoned an employee who worked at one of the staffing company’s customers.

The defendant employer was a staffing company that provides prescreened nurses and medical personnel to hospitals and other facilities.  One such person was a medical assistant who was assigned to work at a customer hospital.  During her time at the hospital, this medical assistant had a few disagreements with plaintiff, who was an employee of the hospital, which resulted in the medical assistant poisoning plaintiff by pouring carbolic acid into plaintiff’s water bottle.

Plaintiff then sued the defendant staffing company for negligence and other torts under a theory of respondeat superior (meaning the defendant was liable for the actions of the medical assistant). The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Normally, when an employer sends an employee to do work for another person, and both have the right to exercise certain powers of control over the employee, that employee may be held to have two employers—his original or “general” employer and a second, the “special” employer. A general employer is absolved of respondeat superior liability, however, when it has relinquished total control to the special employer. During this period of transferred control, the special employer becomes solely liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior for the employee’s job-related torts. In the case, the trial court found that the hospital was a special employer of the medical assistant and, thus, the defendant staffing company was not liable.

The appellate court agreed but on different grounds, finding instead that the defendant staffing agency was not liable for the acts of the medical assistant because she acted outside the course and scope of her employment.