Negligent Hiring Claim: California Case Demonstrates Outer Limits to Liability

This California Negligent Hiring Decision Is Potentially Relevant To All Employers, Wherever They Are Located

Avoiding negligent hiring lawsuits is an important subject to anyone concerned with risk management in connection with employment decision making. It is a major reason for employers to carefully consider and frequently re-evaluate their background checking procedures.

The negligent hiring case discussed below was decided under California law, and therefore is not binding in other states. However, the underlying legal principles involved are rooted in basic negligence law, and therefore similar issues could arise in any state. (As always, on matters of state law, for specific legal advice, consult an attorney licensed to practice in that state.)

Facts Giving Rise to Negligent Hiring Lawsuit

In Phillips v. TLC Plumbing, Inc., 172 Cal.App.4th 1133 (2009), a plumbing company hired a plumber in 1999, although it knew he had been convicted of domestic violence and/or arson involving his ex-wife.

clipart of pipe wrench with sink trap pipes

Four years later, in 2003, the plumber performed a service call at a woman’s home. The plumber and the woman started a relationship that eventually turned romantic. About a month after this service call, the company terminated the plumber’s employment for misuse of a company vehicle, drug and alcohol use, and an allegation of threatening a co-worker.

In 2005, the woman ended the relationship and applied for a restraining order against the plumber. The plumber shot and killed her and was convicted of her murder.

The Negligent Hiring Lawsuit and Appeal

The murdered woman’s daughter brought a lawsuit for negligent hiring against the plumbing company. The trial court dismissed the case on a motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

The California Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal, for two reasons:

  1. The court ruled that an employer no longer has liability for negligent hiring after terminating employment and ending the employer-employee relationship.
  2. As an additional grounds, the court also ruled that there was insufficient causation between the employer’s hiring of the plumber and the plumber’s murder of the plaintiff, so that the hiring was not the proximate or legal cause of the murder.

Basic Formulation of Negligent Hiring Law

In reaching its ruling in the case of the murderous plumber, the court reviewed California law on negligent hiring. Essentially, under applicable legal principles, an employer can be held liable when it hires someone who causes harm if:

  1. The employer knew, or reasonably should have known, that the person was dangerous or unfit;
  2. It was foreseeable that harm could occur; and
  3. The injury to victim was caused by the employer’s act.

Foreseeability and Termination of Employment Limit the Duty of Care

The court determined that the duty of care does not extend to acts committed by a former employee after termination. The logic was that a reasonable person could not foresee that an ex-employee would injure a party two years after termination.

The court said:

[B]ecause the employer-employee relationship ends on termination of an employee’s employment, we conclude an employer does not owe a plaintiff a duty of care in a negligent hiring and retention action for an injury or harm inflicted by a former employee on the plaintiff even though that former employee, as in this case, initially met the plaintiff while employed by the employer.

Negligent Hiring Claim Also Fails Due to Lack of Causal Connection

As additional support for its decision, the Court also relied on a lack of causation.

The court stated that there must be some “nexus or casual connection between” the employer’s negligence and the harm suffered. It found such connection lacking.

Without sufficient causal connection, there was a lack of proximate or legal cause, and therefore the employer was not liable.

The court noted that the plumbing firm could not be the guarantor of the safety of all customers or other persons whom an employee incidentally me het while performing plumbing work, especially given that the relationship here began outside of the plumber’s duties, and the romantic relationship did not even start until after the plumber was terminated.

Employers should not assume that this case announces a firm rule that essentially creates immunity from negligent hiring lawsuits every time a bad hire is terminated.

As the court noted, the existence of a legal duty of care has to be analyzed in the particular factual situation in question.

The result might have been different, for example, if the employer had hired someone for a position where it was foreseeable that a work-related relationship would continue even after termination.

This could occur where the job entailed working with vulnerable patients, for example, where there is a higher duty of care, and where it is foreseeable that once the introduction is made, ongoing relationships that are work related could be established.

The above is a guest post courtesy of ESR, Inc. (Employment Screening Resources), providing online pre-employment screening services for firms of all sizes across numerous industries.

4 Comments

  1. As a management employment attorney, I found this article to be very informative. Would like to pass it along to others. Thank you

  2. Background Check Guy

    In this case the verdict worked out for the defendant, still all employers should be careful of potential employees. Most employers that I have spoken with think that there is more legal risk in conducting background checks than in not conducting them.

  3. I know a lot of HR people who take the stance of “past behavior predicts future behavior” in situations like this. That theory is probably as close to the “the employer knew, or reasonably should have known, that the person was dangerous or unfit” statement as they’re going to get. However, I think most companies simply take the easier way out, which is to disqualify candidates for violence-related situations on their background checks. Although, as Denzel Washington said in Training Day, “that day is gone dog.” And with some of the litigation I’ve read about derogatory use of background checks, I think companies will be forced to prove relation with disqualifications more so moving forward.

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