Police, parents and store clerks have something in common. What, you say? A duty of care to avoid exposing persons to unreasonable risk of injury by others under circumstances and rules which have evolved through the courts over the years.
In one California case, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, in San Diego County, at about 5:00 p.m. one day, observed a Toyota Camry traveling at an estimated speed of 85 miles per hour in the fast, or number one, lane. The officer sounded his siren to attract the attention of the driver and motioned to the driver to stop in the center median area of the highway. The officer stopped 10 to 15 feet behind the Toyota, close to a two foot high concrete barrier, and turned off the motorcycle’s lights.
After writing the ticket, the officer returned to his motorcycle and observed a pick-up truck traveling in the fast lane, drifting toward the center median area where the officer and the Toyota were located.
As the truck approached, the CHP patrol officer waved and jumped up and down, seeking to attract the attention of the truck’s driver who appeared to be looking down inside the truck. Just as the truck was about to hit him, the CHP officer “dove over the concrete median barrier and heard a very loud crash.”
The California Supreme Court determined that the CHP officer,
“in directing a traffic violator to stop in a particular location, has a legal duty to use reasonable care for the safety of the persons in the stopped vehicle and to exercise his or her authority in a manner that does not expose such persons to an unreasonable risk of harm . . . .”
Since the risk of harm posed by the negligence of an oncoming driver is one of the foremost risks against which the officer’s duty of care is intended to protect, the court determined that the matter should be presented to a jury for determination as to whether the CHP officer had acted properly.
One imagines that this CHP officer probably won’t stop many errant drivers in the center median area of a highway in the future!
In another matter, the appellate courts in California reviewed the duty of a parent to provide adult supervision over other children visiting the home.
A 13 year-old girl was brought to the home of G.R., who was told by the girl’s mother “that she did not leave her child anywhere without adult supervision.” G.R. replied “that she and her husband would be at home gardening.” As it turns out, later that day, another boy, 16 years of age, who was also visiting the home, sexually assaulted the young girl after the parents had “left their home for an hour to buy pizza for the teens.”
Prior to this particular incident, the 16 year-old boy apparently had a long history of school misconduct, including sexual harassment of female students, fighting and other activities that resulted in many detentions and suspensions.
In this situation, however, G.R., was not held responsible since
“there is no evidence for which the [jury] could find that [G.R.] had actual prior knowledge that [the 16 year-old boy] had a propensity to sexually assault female minors.”
Another recent case in California considered the duty of care of a grocery store clerk to a customer. This saga took place on Eddy Street in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. The grocery clerk and customer, while in the store, “observed as many as 10 men on the sidewalk outside the store beating another man.”
According to the complaint, all of the men involved in the fight, including the victim, sold drugs on the sidewalk near the grocery. The clerk pulled the victim into the store to rescue him.
“The victim asked [the store clerk] if he could borrow [the clerk’s] pistol. [The clerk] declined to to give him his gun but assured the beating victim he would be safe if he remained in the store. When other members of the group who had beaten the victim attempted to enter the store, armed store employees warned them not to. Stopping at the door, the men warned the beating victim that they were going to shoot him.
At this point, [the customer, who later becomes a plaintiff] told [the store clerk] the victim should not remain in the store because the men outside were going to shoot him, and others in the store might be harmed. Unable to go outside, [the customer] telephoned the police. Before the police arrived, however, several shots were fired by someone sitting in a car on the street next to the grocery. Bullets passed through the front door, wounding [the customer, who now becomes a plaintiff] and two other customers within.”
The appellate court, in considering the subject of premises liability to a customer, observed that premises liability is limited to the premises. The court continued to note that California courts have refused to extend premises liability principles so as to make a property owner liable for a third party’s tortious conduct occurring off the premises.
The moral of the story? Everyone makes mistakes. Since some mistakes turn out to have serious consequences, exercise special care when assuming responsibility for others!