Employers are normally liable for the acts of their employees. In tort law this is known as vicarious liability. In Georgia, vicarious liability applies whenever an employee acts “by [the employer’s] command or in the prosecution and within the scope of [the employer’s] business, whether the same are committed by negligence or voluntarily.” In other words, if you direct your employee to complete a particular task, and in doing so he injured another, the victim can sue you for damages.
Jefferson v. Houston Hospitals, Inc.
But what about a case where the employee ignores your instructions? A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals illustrates how employers may be able to get off the hook even in cases of egregious employee misconduct. The case arises from a 2014 incident that made national headlines. In April 2014, a former technician at a hospital in Perry, Georgia, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of reckless conduct and one count of felony computer forgery.
The technician admitted to forging the mammogram results of over 1,200 women. According to court records, the technician used the passwords of the hospital’s radiologists to “created forged reports indicating that the mammograms were normal.” The radiologist’s attorney later said his client had “got behind in her work and wanted to try and get caught up.”
Unfortunately, getting “caught up” meant playing “Russian roulette with the lives of essentially thousand women in this community,” according to the judge who sentenced the radiologist. At least two women who had received false mammogram results developed cancer and died. Hundreds of other women had to undergo additional tests after learning their initial mammograms were forged.
Three women who received false mammograms sued the hospital alleging it was vicariously liable for the radiologist’s actions. In a March 29 opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed a trial judge’s decision dismissing the women’s complaint. Under Georgia law, the hospital was not liable because the employee here “was not acting within the scope of her employment when she improperly accessed the mammography computer files and forged reports.” Because the radiologist “stepped aside from her job duties and indeed violated them by forging documents for her own personal convenience,” the hospital could not be held responsible.
The Court of Appeals further rejected the plaintiffs’ claims for damages based on “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Emotional distress requires, among other elements, evidence that the “defendants’ conduct was extreme and outrageous” and that “the emotional harm was severe.” On the first issue, the court reiterated the hospital was not liable for the “extreme and outrageous” conduct of the radiologist. As for emotional harm, the court noted none of the three plaintiffs “sought medical treatment or counseling for any emotional distress” or reported any symptoms that would rise to the level of “severe” emotional harm. (It should also be noted that none of the plaintiffs in this case developed breast cancer or suffered any physical injury as a result of the radiologist’s actions, the court said.)