Law Enforcement Officers: Duty of Care

By on August 2, 2010 - Comments off

Camp v. State of California, (Second District, May 18, 2010) —Cal.Rptr. 3d —-, 2010 WL 1965878, 10 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 6037, 2010 Daily Journal D.A.R. 7222

A woman who was rendered quadriplegic as result of injuries sustained in a rollover accident filed suit against a California Highway Patrol officer who had responded to scene, asserting that his negligence contributed to her injuries. The plaintiff alleged that when officers arrived at the scene, she was on the ground outside of the vehicle and able to move her arms and legs, but an officer ordered her and her companions to leave the scene, and that when one of them carried her away, her initial injuries were aggravated, resulting in severe spinal cord damage. The plaintiff further alleged that one of the officers breached a duty of care toward her by failing to conduct a reasonable assessment of her medical condition despite her denial of an injury at the scene, by not ordering an ambulance for her because she was not competent to decline medical care, and by ordering her to leave the accident site.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff against the State of California and against the CHP officer. However, the court of appeal reversed, holding that the officer’s conduct amounted to nonfeasance that did not alter the risk of harm to the plaintiff, and therefore he owed no duty to her:

“Police routinely respond to emergencies, but they do not have a “legal duty” to do so. By that, we mean that an officer’s failure to respond to a request for assistance will not result in tort liability for the officer even if a member of the public is injured by the officer’s failure to act, i.e., his or her nonfeasance. If they do respond and their affirmative acts negligently cause harm to a person in need of assistance, their misfeasance may create a special relationship and result in tort liability As we shall explain, this tragic case involves an officer’s nonfeasance that did not alter the risk of harm to the person in need. Based upon California Supreme Court precedent, there is no basis for tort liability.
. . .
[I]t is regrettable that Camp was so adamant in her repeated refusals of help and that Lewis was unable to prevail upon her with repeated offers of an ambulance. But he could not force her to cooperate with ambulance personnel or consent to medical treatment. Perhaps ambulance personnel could have persuaded Camp to cooperate but there is no objective reason to believe she would have changed her mind. Had Lewis asked her to sit up or move her legs, he might have discovered the true extent of her injuries and called an ambulance to the site notwithstanding her protests. But as the court noted in Adams, law enforcement officers are not “professional Good Samaritans” subject to a malpractice claim “whenever their response falls short of ‘ “what reasonably prudent police employees would have done in similar circumstances.”
. . .
This leaves the last basis argued by Camp which, in theory, was an affirmative direction equatable with “misfeasance.” The jury found that Lewis “ordered” the group from the scene of the accident. But there was no alternative. Camp was leaving in any event and the group had already arranged for transportation away from the field. No one was going to spend the night in the field. Phrased otherwise, either on her own power or with the aid of her companions, Camp was going to depart from the accident scene. The order to do so cannot, consistent with common sense, be the cause in fact of Medina’s decision to carry her away.

For these reasons, we conclude Lewis owed no duty of care in “managing” the accident scene, in assessing Camp’s physical condition after the accident, or in ordering her to leave the accident site. Because there was no misfeasance by Lewis he owed no duty to her.”

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