Employers owe a duty of care to their employees, but how far does “Duty of Care” extend when a third party is involved? The court in the following case had to determine whether a laboratory that performs drug screening at the behest of an employer owes a duty of care by extension to an employee who submits to a workplace drug test.[1] In Stinson v. Physicians Immediate Care, Ltd., the employee was discharged for testing positive for cocaine in violation of the company drug-free workplace policy.[2] After the employee was discharged he filed a lawsuit against the laboratory that performed the drug test.[3] The employee alleged that the laboratory owed a duty to act with care in collecting and handling the specimen and in reporting the test results to the employer and that the laboratory breached that duty.[4] The laboratory filed a motion to dismiss the claim and the trial court granted the dismissal; the employee appealed to the appellate court.[5]

This question was a matter of first impression in the Illinois court, so this decision would set safeguards for employees experiencing errors in their drug screening. The laboratory argued that it only owed a duty of care to the employer, not the employee, because the laboratory was under contract with the employer and not the employee.[6] The court disagreed and held that there is a close relationship between an employee and a laboratory which has a contract with an employer and that it is reasonably foreseeable that an employee will be harmed if the laboratory negligently reports test results to the employer.[7] The court further held that the risk of harm from a false-positive drug test is so significant for the employee that it deserves legal protection based on public policy.[8] The court opined that drug testing companies should be held accountable for the information they provide and that such information should not false or misleading.[9] A laboratory is in the best position to prevent errors and is solely responsible for the performance of testing and quality and control procedures.[10]

The case was reversed and remanded and the court concluded that, because the laboratory had a duty to the employee to act with reasonable care in collecting, handling, and testing the specimen, the laboratory falsely reported to the employer that the result was positive.[11]  The court further concluded that the false report was the result of any of several allegedly negligent acts by the laboratory and, therefore, the employee lost his job as a result of the laboratory’s negligence.[12]

Collectors and laboratories performing workplace drug and alcohol testing should ensure that appropriate procedures are taken to avoid any errors in the employee’s ultimate test results. Depending on the jurisdiction, this duty of care can also apply to any service agent involved in the testing process. Employers depend on these results to decide whether a policy violation has taken place and to take adverse action against employees up to and including discharge. Therefore, laboratories, collection sites, and employers should provide appropriate initial and refresher training and implement procedures to help prevent successful challenges to test results.. The ability to show proof that specimen collection and drug tests were accurately completed is key to defensible adverse employment actions  and the only way to maintain accuracy is to perfect policies and procedures through practice and appropriate training.

[1] Stinson v. Physicians Immediate Care, Ltd., 646 N.E.2d 930, 931 (Ill. App. 2d Dist. 1995). [2] Id. [3] Id. [4] Id. [5] Id. [6] Stinson, 646 N.E.2d at 933. [7] Id. [8] Stinson, 646 N.E.2d at 934. [9] Id. [10] Id. [11] Id. [12] Id.