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Steinle v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. California

January 6, 2020

JAMES STEINLE, et al., Plaintiffs,


          Joseph C. Spero Chief Magistrate Judge


         This case arises from the tragic death of Kathryn Steinle (“Steinle”) in a 2015 shooting. Plaintiffs are Steinle's parents James Steinle and Elizabeth Sullivan-individually, as heirs to Steinle, and as representatives of Steinle's estate. Plaintiffs' remaining claim in this action is against Defendant the United States of America, based on the purported negligence of a federal employee in failing to secure the handgun with which Steinle was shot, which was stolen from his personal vehicle days before the shooting. The United States moves for summary judgment, and the Court held a hearing on December 20, 2019. For the reasons discussed below, the United States' motion is GRANTED.[1]


         Most of the facts relevant to the present motion are not in dispute, or at least not disputed for the purpose of the present motion. On June 27, 2015, then-U.S. Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) Ranger John Woychowski was driving his personal Buick SUV with his family from his home and usual duty station near the Mexican border in El Centro, California to Sacramento, California, on the way to a temporary duty assignment in Montana.[2] Woychowski stopped in San Francisco for dinner and parked his car at 9:45 PM in a lot at Pier 5 on the Embarcadero, somewhat near the Ferry Building, leaving all of his family's luggage in the car while they went to a restaurant. Among that luggage was a black backpack containing one of Woychowski's two duty handguns, a Sig Sauer P239, loaded and without a trigger lock. Woychowski did not apply his BLM-issued trigger lock to the handgun or stow the gun in a more secure place because he preferred to have ready access to at least one gun at all times, but Woychowski did not take a gun with him to the restaurant when he left the car. See Cordova Decl. (dkt. 118-1) Ex. 2 (Woychowski Dep.) at 118:14-119:17, 198:23-199:6. Woychowski testified that he put the backpack at least partially under the back of the driver's seat when he left the vehicle, Wall Decl. (dkt. 115-1) Ex. A (Woychowski Dep.) at 171:6-11, 174:10-175:9, and that a uniformed security guard indicated that he would be in the area until 11:00 PM, at which point Woychowski should be back in his vehicle, id. at 183:4-24. When Woychowski and his family returned to the car at 11:00 PM, they discovered that two windows had been broken and some but not all of the luggage left in the car had been stolen, including the backpack containing Woychowski's handgun. Police recovered Woychowski's backpack later that night from the scene of another break-in but did not recover the gun.

         Four days later, on July 1, 2015, Steinle was walking with her father on Pier 14 of the Embarcadero, around half a mile from Pier 5, and Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez[3] was sitting on a bench at Pier 14. Lopez Sanchez fired Woychowski's stolen handgun, and the bullet ricocheted off the ground and hit Steinle, who died from her injuries. The only evidence offered as to how Lopez Sanchez acquired the gun is a translation from Spanish of his muddled interview with police investigators, in which Lopez Sanchez indicated that he found the gun wrapped in a shirt or rag near where he was sitting. Wall Decl. Ex. I at 125.[4] Lopez Sanchez was prosecuted in California state court and acquitted of murder, manslaughter, and assault, but convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. A state appellate court reversed the conviction on the firearm charge for failure to instruct the jury on the defense of momentary possession, with the trial having included contradictory evidence that might or might not have supported such a defense depending on the jury's view of the evidence. See generally People v. Garcia Zarate, No. A153400, 2019 WL 4127299, at *1 (Cal.Ct.App. Aug. 30, 2019) (unpublished).

         Plaintiffs brought this action against the City and County of San Francisco and its former sheriff Ross Mirkarimi (collectively, the “City Defendants”) and against the United States, asserting claims based on the United States and the City Defendants' failure to ensure that Lopez Sanchez, a felon eligible for deportation, was in fact deported when he was released from local custody on drug charges, as well as the claim at issue here based on Woychowski's conduct. Plaintiffs also initially named Lopez Sanchez as a defendant, but voluntarily dismissed their claims against him without prejudice. This Court previously dismissed all claims based on failure to deport Lopez Sanchez with prejudice, which included all claims against the City Defendants and some claims against the United States, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. See Order re Mots. to Dismiss (“MTD Order, ” dkt. 48);[5] Steinle v. City & Cty. of San Francisco, 919 F.3d 1154 (9th Cir. 2019). The Court also dismissed a negligence per se claim based on Woychowski's conduct with leave to amend, but Plaintiffs did not file an amended complaint. The only remaining claim is against the United States for basic negligence under the Federal Tort Claims Act as incorporating California law, based on Woychowski's failure to secure the firearm that was stolen and used in the shooting.

         The United States now moves for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiffs have shown neither that Woychowski had a duty to Plaintiffs under California law nor that Woychowski's failure to secure the gun was a proximate cause of Steinle's death. Although the United States also suggests that the record does not show Woychowski acted negligently, it does not move for summary judgment on that basis, and the Court does not reach that issue.[6] The Court assumes for the purpose of this order that a jury could find that Woychowski acted negligently in leaving a loaded, unlocked handgun in a backpack in a car full of luggage, parked on the street at night in a large city with which Woychowski was not familiar. Plaintiffs argue that under a doctrine of California negligence law known as “special circumstances, ” the United States can be held liable for damage foreseeably caused by the foreseeable theft of Woychowski's firearm.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment on a claim or defense is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In order to prevail, a party moving for summary judgment must show the absence of a genuine issue of material fact with respect to an essential element of the non-moving party's claim, or to a defense on which the non-moving party will bear the burden of persuasion at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         Once the movant has made this showing, the burden then shifts to the party opposing summary judgment to designate “‘specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. (citation omitted); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1) (“A party asserting that a fact . . . is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by . . . citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . .”). “[T]he inquiry involved in a ruling on a motion for summary judgment . . . implicates the substantive evidentiary standard of proof that would apply at the trial on the merits.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). The non-moving party has the burden of identifying, with reasonable particularity, the evidence that precludes summary judgment. Keenan v. Allan, 91 F.3d 1275, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996). Thus, it is not the task of the court to scour the record in search of a genuine issue of triable fact. Id.; see Carmen v. S.F. Unified Sch. Dist., 237 F.3d 1026, 1031 (9th Cir. 2001); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3).

         A party need not present evidence to support or oppose a motion for summary judgment in a form that would be admissible at trial, but the contents of the parties' evidence must be amenable to presentation in an admissible form. See Fraser v. Goodale, 342 F.3d 1032, 1036-37 (9th Cir. 2003). Neither conclusory, speculative testimony in affidavits nor arguments in moving papers are sufficient to raise genuine issues of fact and defeat summary judgment. Thornhill Publ'g Co., Inc. v. GTE Corp., 594 F.2d 730, 738 (9th Cir. 1979). On summary judgment, the court draws all reasonable factual inferences in favor of the non-movant, Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007), but where a rational trier of fact could not find for the non-moving party based on the record as a whole, there is no “genuine issue for trial” and summary judgment is appropriate. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         B. Elements of the Claim

         Plaintiffs' remaining claim is for negligence under California law and the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). “The FTCA, a limited waiver of the United States' sovereign immunity, provides that the United States shall be liable ‘in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances' under applicable state law.” Dugard v. United States, 835 F.3d 915, 918-19 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2674). In California, “[t]he elements of a negligence action are duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages.” Carrera v. Maurice J. Sopp & Son, 177 Cal.App.4th 366, 377 (2009) (citing, e.g., Paz v. California, 22 Cal.4th 550, 559 (2000)). The United States seeks summary judgment based on the elements of duty and causation.

         C. Duty, and “Special Circumstances” Cases

         California courts “have invoked the concept of duty to limit generally ‘the otherwise potentially infinite liability which would follow from every negligent act.'” Beacon Residential Cmty. Assn. v. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 59 Cal.4th 568, 573 (2014) (quoting Bily v. Arthur Young & Co., 3 Cal.4th 370, 397 (1992)). The California Supreme Court has identified several “major” factors relevant to the existence and scope of a common law duty of care:

the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting ...

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