Thursday, September 20, 2007

Residential Treatment Facility For Inmates Has No Duty to General Public

Public Policy of Encouraging Innovative Criminal Offender Release and Rehabilitation Programs Outweighs Public Interest in Safety From Violent Assault

Rice v. Center Point, Inc. (Aug. 29, 2007, A114953, First District)
11 p. opinion

Rice addresses the first element in a cause of action for negligence - duty. The general rule is that one owes no duty to control the conduct of another, nor to warn those endangered by such conduct. There is an exception where a special relationship exists between the defendant and either the person whose conduct needs to be controlled or the foreseeable victim of the third party's conduct. In this action the plaintiffs argued that they fell within that exception when they were ordinary citizens in a public park who were attacked and stabbed by four inmates of the California Department of Corrections who were living in the the defendant's residential substance abuse treatment facility. The inmates were in the facility under the terms of a contract between the defendant and the CDC. The trial court disagreed with the plaintiff's argument and granted the defendant judgment on the pleadings on the ground that the defendant did not owe the plaintiffs a legal duty of care to control the criminal behavior of the residents of their treatment facility. The plaintiffs appealed.

The Court of Appeal held that there was no special relationship between the defendant and the plaintiffs. The duty to warn the foreseeable victims of a possible future criminal attack is imposed only where the duty is foreseeable and the intended victim is identifiable. The plaintiffs were not identifiable just because they were in a park near the treatment facility.

In addressing the question of whether a special relationship existed between the defendant and their residents that imposed upon the defendants a duty owed to the public to exercise reasonable care to control the criminal conduct of their residents, the Court of Appeal was guided by two previous cases, Baeuchene v. Synanon Foundation, Inc. (1979) 88 Cal.App.3d 342 and Cardenas v. Eggleston Youth Center (1987) 193 Cal.App.3d 331. In both those cases the court held that the public's interest in safety from violent assault was outweighed by the public policy favoring innovative criminal offender release and rehabilitation programs. Imposing a duty upon residential facilities would hinder the implementation of that public policy, therefore, both courts held that there was no such duty.

The Court of Appeal followed that reasoning and upheld the judgment on the pleadings. The plaintiffs' argument that the defendant had failed to follow its own operational policies and procedures could only demonstrate a lack of reasonable care. When there is no duty that issue is irrelevant. Reasonable care presumes the existence of a duty. With no duty, there can be no requirement of reasonable care.
Presiding Justice Pollack wrote the opinion. Justices Siggins and Justice Horner (Assigned Judge of the Alameda County Superior Court) concurred.

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