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County of Sacramento v. the Superior Court of Sacramento County

September 4, 2012

COUNTY OF SACRAMENTO, PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SACRAMENTO COUNTY, RESPONDENT; TUMBUR PURBA ET AL., REAL PARTIES IN INTEREST.



(Super. Ct. No. 34-2009-00056873-CU-PO-GDS)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Butz , J.

County of Sacramento v. Super. Ct. CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

Petitioner County of Sacramento (the County) unsuccessfully moved for summary judgment in this tort action, which is premised on the alleged failure of the Sacramento County Public Conservator (the conservator) to warn a care facility adequately about a conservatee's history of violence. After placement at the facility, the conservatee injured one employee and killed another (Tumbur Purba and his wife, decedent Pausta Sibarani). The County had asserted, inter alia, that its agency was immune from suit under Welfare and Institutions Code section 5358.1*fn1 and consequently it did not have any derivative liability. The trial court, after finding the existence of a duty to warn adequately, ruled that "the immunity is not so broad" because "there is a duty that in essence super[s]edes the immunity . . . where someone is a real problem and dangerous to the public . . . ."

The County filed a petition in this court for a writ of mandate directing the trial court to set aside its order and issue a new one granting summary judgment on the basis of this statutory immunity. We issued an alternative writ, to which real parties in interest (Tumbur Purba and the children of the couple, to whom we will refer in the singular as "real party") have filed a return. We agree section 5358.1 affords an absolute immunity. We will therefore issue a peremptory writ directing the trial court to vacate its order and issue a new one granting the County's motion for summary judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Standard of Review

Under the "historic paradigm" for our de novo review of a motion for summary judgment (Rio Linda Unified School Dist. v. Superior Court (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 732, 734-735), we first identify the material issues framed in the pleadings. We then ordinarily determine whether a defendant's evidence establishes prima facie entitlement to judgment in the defendant's favor on these issues, after which we consider whether the opponent's evidence creates a factual conflict with respect to any of these issues that only a trier of fact can resolve. (Ibid.) In the present case, however, we can omit the latter two steps because the dispute involves only the legal significance of the material facts and not the existence of any disputes about them.

Pleadings

The real party filed an amended complaint in January 2010. The pleading asserted causes of action for the wrongful death of decedent Sibarani, a survivor action for negligence, and the real party's cause of action for negligence under both the theory of being a direct victim of negligence and of being a percipient family member witness of personal injuries to the decedent (e.g., Newton v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals (1986) 184 Cal.App.3d 386, 389-390 [discussing both theories]). The pleading asserted that the County was vicariously liable for the acts of negligence of its agents and representatives. (Gov. Code, § 820.)

The pleading alleged that conservatee Ofiu Fotu (the conservatee) had entered a plea of no contest to assaulting an employee of another care facility in 2005. The conservatee was granted formal probation. The conservator first recommended a placement at one care facility in 2007, then in December 2007 recommended placement of the conservatee in a second facility that employed the decedent and the real party. The conservator was aware that the conservatee had a 20-year "history of violent attacks on others, [with] numerous criminal convictions involving violent crimes and mental disorders," but failed to warn the owners or employees of the care facilities (who would not have accepted the conservatee as a resident if fully informed). In September 2008, the conservatee fatally beat the elderly decedent with a wooden chair, and inflicted life-threatening injuries on her husband.

Causes of action for negligence require a plaintiff to establish a duty on the part of a defendant (in addition to the defendant's breach of that duty that was both the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff's damages). (Sagadin v. Ripper (1985) 175 Cal.App.3d 1141, 1160 (Sagadin).) In the context of a public entity, liability for a breach of a statutory duty is subject to statutory immunities (Gov. Code, § 815, subd. (b)), which generally have preemptive effect regardless of whether they are included in the Government Claims Act itself (Gov. Code, § 810 et seq.). (See 1 Coates et al., Cal. Government Tort Liability Practice (Cont.Ed.Bar 2011) Overview, § 1.13, p. 9, § 1.16, p. 11, § 1.17, p. 12; General Immunities, § 10.74, pp. 703-704, 707 [Welfare and Institutions Code section 5328.1 is among immunities to tort claim against public entity]; accord, Gates v. Superior Court (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 481, 510 [general rule is that statutory immunity, even for intentional conduct, overrides statutory liability].) The existence of an immunity despite a duty to warn adequately on the part of the County is accordingly a material issue framed within this pleading. (Gates, supra, 32 Cal.App.4th at p. 494 [if tort liability of public entity at issue, complaint must establish facts necessary to place cause of action outside the breadth of any potential statutory immunity].)

Evidence

The statement of undisputed facts confirmed the well-pleaded material factual allegations of the complaint. The real party's opposition and the County's reply do not create triable issues of material fact in connection with the immunity issue, so we do not need to ...


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