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Issue #7 - May 28 2013


Welcome to the seventh issue of the newsletter!

This plumber murdered his employer's client in her home! In today's main essay our very own Chris Olmsted (top notch employment attorney at Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC and the expert behind our feature "Ask Chris") explains what can happen to you and your company should your employee commit a crime while on your jobsite.

Also in today's issue...

To encourage you, and to make it easy, to do the background checks mentioned in the article by Chris I've provided a couple links where you can run instant checks... Please don't wait until it's too late - see today's Check it Out!

My Quick Tip today brings you another suggestion on how to add to your bottom line.

I hope you enjoy this issue of


"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
~  Henry de Bracton

Plumbing Contractor Liable For
Employee's Criminal Act (in this case murder!)?

By Christopher Olmsted

Can a company be held liable for illegal actions of their employees?

When a company negligently hires and retains a worker with dangerous propensities, it can be held liable for harm that the worker causes to customers, co-workers, or others.

For example, if a company hires a recently convicted violent felon to work unsupervised in customer homes, the company may be held liable if the worker assaults the homeowner while working in the home.

How Far Does It Go?

How far does this legal doctrine go? What if the worker and the customer come into contact during the course of employment, but the violent act occurs after termination? An appellate court answered this question for the first time in California.

The case is titled Phillips v. TLC Plumbing, Inc., and it tells a tragic story. In 1999 TLC employed James Cain was a plumbing service repairman. The company was aware that Cain was on parole and apparently had been convicted of a domestic violence and/or arson offense involving his then wife.

A few years later, in April 2003, TLC dispatched Cain on two service calls to Judith Phillips' residence. The next month, TLC terminated Cain's employment for misuse of a company vehicle, drug and alcohol use, and threatening a coworker.

Cain and Phillips began a social relationship in April 2003 after his first service call. Their relationship seemingly evolved over time into a romantic one. About two years later, after Ms. Phillips had ended their relationship and applied for a restraining order against Cain, he shot and killed her. Later he was convicted of murder.

The General Rule

Generally, employers may be held liable for negligent hiring decisions. The court in Phillips considered this general rule.

Quoting case precedents, the court wrote: "An employer may be liable to a third person for the employer's negligence in hiring or retaining an employee who is incompetent or unfit."

This would include, of course, not only workers who cannot safely perform their work, and those who are known to be reckless, but also workers with violent propensities.

It is a matter of making the employer bear the loss it has caused for making negligent decisions.

"Liability for negligent hiring," wrote the court, "is based upon the reasoning that if an enterprise hires individuals with characteristics which might pose a danger to customers or other employees, the enterprise should bear the loss caused by the wrongdoing of its incompetent or unfit employees."

According to the general rule, merely hiring a worker who then turns out to be incompetent, careless or vicious is not enough to create liability.

The company must have had reason to know of an unreasonable risk of harm. In other words, as the court wrote, "negligence liability will be imposed on an employer if it 'knew or should have known that hiring the employee created a particular risk or hazard and that particular harm materializes.'"

Thus, if an employer should have conducted an employee background criminal check on a worker, and doing so would have revealed a history of violent crimes, it could be said that the employer "should have known" of the risk of harm. (Note: this does not mean that all employers must necessarily conduct background criminal checks for all positions.)

[Side note from Diane: Conversely, if an employer does run an employee background criminal check and finds reason to believe that hiring the applicant could possibly create a risk, and still hires the guy anyway, the employer could be found liable of negligence - and worse.]

No Liability For Post-Termination Misconduct?

The court analyzed the general rule and determined that the duty of care exists only during the employment relationship, not after termination.

The court wrote: "Because 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 other 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."

The court found no precedent for this rule in California, but found analogous cases in Ohio, Hawaii, Alabama and New York.

Buttressing its decision, the court also reasoned that here the crime in question had no cause-and-effect relationship to Cain's job duties.

Though this case eliminates or at least limits employer liability for acts taking place after termination, employers ought to take note of the potential for liability arising from employee criminal acts during the course of employment.

For example, had the plumber committed the crime while still employed by TLC Plumbing, the outcome of the case may not have been as favorable (though the consensual romantic relationship may have foiled the lawsuit in any event).

As suggested in the "Practical Tips" section below, employers should take appropriate steps to limit liability.

Practical Tips and Precautions

Some practical tips and precautions to consider:

  • Require applicants to disclose criminal histories (note: some state laws impose restrictions). Take steps to verify employment history.
  • In certain contexts, it is prudent to conduct employee criminal background checks prior to the start of employment.
  • Take appropriate screening precautions where employees will come into contact with customers, children, or other members of the public.
  • Verify that employees are properly trained and experienced to perform job duties, particularly where there is a risk of injury to self or others.

Bottom line: Run an employee background criminal check (see the next section for a couple links) if permitted by your state. Don't hire, and do terminate, employees who exhibit reckless, dangerous, or vicious propensities.

It could mean the life of a customer, the health of your business, the safety of your own employees and family, and so much more.

Chris Olmsted is a shareholder in the San Diego law firm Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC. Please email him with any questions or comments or you can visit his website at

Check It Out!

"They" keep saying that work is picking up again. Fingers crossed that it is!

But with the work picking up there will be companies that need to hire new employees to replace those they lost due to these terrible economic times.

You have to run background checks on these guys/gals. The above article is sobering to say the least. It could be your customer or your family or your employees that it happens to next.

Background Report 360

Intelius Instant Background Checks - 30% discount for a limited time!

We had an ex-felon for an employee but we didn't know he was an ex-felon. And we didn't have the background checks available to us that are available now.

This particular employee, after we let him go, almost jumped the owner of our company at the local gas station. That was scary! I have absolutely nothing against ex-felons that are reformed and doing good with their lives but this guy wasn't one of them.

If we'd known beforehand what we found afterwards, from a prior employer of his, we never would have hired him. We had him in our house and near our kids. It still frightens me to think of what could have happened and that was 12 or 13 years ago!

Don't let the unthinkable happen! I'd like to say that chances are you'll find that your potential employees (and current employees) are just fine but I can't say that simply because I've been down that road.

It's no longer an option to not run a background check; you know as well as I do that there are some bad guys out there.

Background Report 360

Intelius Instant Background Checks - 30% discount for a limited time!

Be sure to visit these websites and make sure who it is you're hiring, and who you've already got in your employ.

If the links above don't work please visit this webpage - - and scroll down in the right column for the links.

Quick Tip

I'm always on the lookout for things that can help you with your business and/or your bottom line. Here's something right up the alley...

"Junk 2 Profits" is the most complete junk hauling startup guide online. It doesn't just offer technical training. The guide goes into deep detail about how to market and sell the business -- particularly online.

Lack of sales is the #1 reason for small business failure...not quality of service.

"Junk 2 Profits" includes a professionally designed craigslist ad and flier that have a value of over $140. You'll get something tangible that no other ebook offers.

What do you need to get started? Nothing more than what you already have!

  • A truck. Chances are you have one but if not you can rent one for $19.95 a day.
  • A $30 moving dolly and ramp. You can rent these too.
  • A professional looking craigslist ad. You'll be provided with a sharp, professional looking ad that you can post to the top of Craigslist Services every morning.
  • A business license.
  • A strong work ethic. Though the money is GREAT, this business is for people willing to work hard for it.

See, nothing that you don't already have! And it fits right in there with construction! And it's only $25!

You know what to do... :)

Updated Forms and Laws

A myriad of downloadable construction forms for all states:

Use and sign forms on your smartphones/tablets/mobile devices:

This is the section of our newsletter where I'll announce updated forms from our website as well as changes to laws. I'd love your help in keeping this section active so if you have any news please do email me and I'll include it here.

Look Who's Talking!
Send me your comments and see your name in lights! ;)

Hi Diane!

I thought the email on Invalid Release Forms - May 13, 2013, was very informative and I save it to refer back to it from time to time.

Keep them coming we can use all the help we can get these days.

~ Pauline - Forster Pump & Engineering -

What Did You Think?

If you haven't yet, please let me know your thoughts on the main essay by posting your comments here.

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