California Case Demonstrates Outer Limits to Negligent Hiring Exposure

The case involved a plumber that was hired in 1999, even though the plumbing company knew the person had been convicted of domestic violence and/or arson involving the plumber’s ex-wife. Four years later, in 2003, the plumber performs a service call at the victim’s home. The plumber and the victim started a relationship that eventually turned romantic in nature.  About a month after the service call with the victim, the plumber was terminated for misuse of a company vehicle, drug and alcohol use and an allegation of threatening a co-worker.

By 2005, the victim apparently had enough and 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 victim’s daughter brought a lawsuit for negligent hiring against the plumbing company. The case was dismissed by the trial court on a motion for summary judgment, and it was appealed.

The Appeals court upheld the dismissal, for two reasons:

First, the court ruled that an employer no longer has liability for negligent hiring after terminating and the end of the employer-employee relationship. As an additional grounds, the Court also ruled that the was insufficient causation between the employer hiring the plumber and the murder of the victim, so that the employer’s hiring was not the proximate or legal cause of the murder.

In reaching its ruling, the court reviewed California law on negligent hiring. Essentially, an employer can be held liable when it hires someone that causes harm where the employer either knew, or reasonably should have known, that the person was dangerous or unfit, and it was foreseeable that harm could occur, and the injury to victim was caused by the employer’s act.

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

The California found that: “[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.”

As additional support for its decision, the Court also relied on a lack of causation. The court noted that there must be some “nexus or casual connection between” the employer’s negligence, and the harm suffered. Without sufficient connation, there is a lack of proximate or legal cause, and there fore the employer would not be liable. The Court noted that the plumbing firm could be the guarantor of the safety of all customers or other persons whom the employee incidentally meet while performing plumbing work, especially given that the relationship began outside of the plumber’s duties, and the romantic relationship did not even start until AFTER the plumber was terminated.

Employers may not want to assume however, 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. A different argument could be made 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 it is foreseeable that once the introduction is made, that ongoing relationships that are work related could be established.

The above is not given as legal advice but only as an educational article that may be helpful.   The case is, Phillips v. TLC Plumbing, Inc. (2009)172 Cal.App.4th 1133. For more information or a copy of the case, contact Jared Callahan at 415-898-0044 or by e-mail at jcallhans@ESRcheck.com