New Jersey’s Highest Court Rejects “Absolute Liability” Standard for Employee Assault of Patient

By: Lynne Anne Anderson and Jerrold Wohlgemuth

The New Jersey Supreme Court in Davis v. Devereux Foundation, 209 N.J. 269 (2012), recently rejected an attempt to impose absolute liability against a residential health care facility for a criminal assault committed by an employee against a resident patient.  The Court determined that the facility should be held to the traditional reasonable duty of care towards its patients.   Further, the traditional “scope of employment” analysis should be applied to determine whether the employer could be held liable for the tortious conduct of its employee.

In Davis, a resident counselor employed by Devereux, a residential institution for the developmentally disabled, engaged in a pre-meditated act of aggression when she assaulted a residential patient by pouring boiling water on him.  The counselor was arrested and imprisoned for criminal assault, and the patient’s guardians obtained a default judgment against her for assault in the ensuing civil action.

The family also brought a civil action against the health care facility.  Reversing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the facility, the Appellate Division remanded for trial and imposed an absolute liability standard on the employer under the common law “non-delegable duty” analysis, which imposes a duty on the master to protect those entrusted to its care in an in loco parentis relationship, such as a school or health care facility, and subjects the master to liability for the acts of its employees whenever they fail to meet their duty of care.  Under that common law approach, the non-delegable duty imposed on the employer cannot be satisfied by any level of care taken by the employer in hiring or supervision of its staff, but is based solely on the level of care taken by the employee.

The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated summary judgment in favor of the health care facility.  The Court observed that the “non-delegable duty” would unfairly impose absolute liability on the employer regardless of the level of care engaged in by the employer.  “Once an employee has committed a tortious act, the duty would effectively impose absolute liability upon residential institutions” even if the employer had acted reasonably in screening applicants and supervising its employees.

The Court instead determined that traditional principles of the duty of reasonable care should be followed with respect to the actions of employees of facilities responsible for in loco parentis care.  The Court observed that such facilities are expected to take reasonable measures to assure that their staff members are not endangering the safety of the patients entrusted to their care, and that liability for the tortious acts of their employees would be determined under traditional “scope of employment” principles.  Finding in this case that Devereux acted reasonably in screening individuals prior to hiring, and in supervising the relationship of its employees with the residential patients, the Court determined that the facility had met its duty of care to its patients.  The Court further determined that the counselor had acted far outside the scope of her employment in pouring boiling water on the patient where she acted out of personal anger and frustration, and not in any way to further the interests of her employer.