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Employers not liable for employee crime outside work

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in Employment Background Check,Human Resources

California employers can rest easy—they aren’t liable for criminal acts their employees may undertake outside the workplace or their job responsibilities. That’s true even if the employee uses work-related materials to commit the crime, and the employer missed important clues in a background check.

Recent case: Kristin Rossum, who worked in the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office, was a drug addict. She was also an honors chemistry graduate whose work involved analyzing body fluids to determine whether drugs were present.

She also was married while carrying on an affair with her supervisor. When her husband discovered the affair, the two had an argument.

Shortly after, Rossum secreted away from the office the drugs she knew were hard for pathologists to detect during autopsies—something she had learned about in seminars she attended as part of her job. Rossum then used the drugs to poison her husband. She was convicted of murder and is serving a life term.

Her husband’s family sued San Diego County, alleging that it negligently supervised Rossum, allowing her to steal the drugs that killed their son and failing to discover through a background check that Rossum was a drug addict.

But the California Court of Appeal threw out the case. It reasoned that an employer is not liable for criminal acts committed by its employees outside the scope of employment. (DeVillers v. County of San Diego, No. D048974, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate Division, 2007)

Final note: The result may have been different had the murder taken place during the course of employment—for example, if an employee killed a patient under the employer’s care.

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