As a top personal injury law firm, the law office of Barry P. Goldberg in Woodland Hills receives many inquiries from victims who have been injured in an accident—often wondering who can be held liable. The responsibility of persons directly involved in the accident is often clear: of course, they can be held liable. What about others that are not as “directly” involved? The Supreme Court of California recently provided some answers to this confusing area of law by setting forth a two-step analysis for determining third-party liability.
Duty of Care & Third-Party Involvement
To hold a defendant liable in a traditional negligence case, a plaintiff must prove five basic elements: (1) that the defendant owed a duty to use reasonable care; (2) breach of that duty, (3) causation; (4) proximate cause, and (5) damages. But, the analysis is complicated when the third parties are involved, and it must be determined if the defendant is responsible for the actions of third parties. The courts do not wish to hold a party liable for the actions of a third person without control. The issue arises under the duty element: did the named defendant owe a duty to protect the plaintiff from the actions from a third-party? Generally, one has a duty to use reasonable care to avoid injuring others. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1714). Equally established is the general rule that “one owes no duty to control the conduct of another.” Brown v. USA Taekwondo (Cal. Apr. 1, 2021), No. S259216, 2021 WL 1218492, at *2 (Brown) (quoting Regents of University of California v. Superior Court (2018) 4 Cal.5th 607, 619). However, there is an exception to the general no-duty-to-protect rule where “the defendant has a special relationship with either the dangerous third party or with the victim.” (Brown, at *2).
Nevertheless, the courts are reluctant to extend liability for third-party acts absent statutory exceptions to the general rule set forth under Section 1714, and they look to public policy considerations when deciding to extend liability. The courts use the Rowland factors in their public policy analysis which are: (1) the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff; (2) the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury; (3) the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered; (4) the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct; (5) the policy of preventing future harm; (6) the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach; and (7) the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved. (Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, 113 (Rowland)). While there is no exhaustive list of what these special relationships are, a special relationship is often found in cases where the defendant was entrusted with the care of the plaintiff, such as the relationship between a schoolteacher and her students. Under these or similar situations, the court may impose liability to teacher for negligently failing to protect her students from the acts of a third-party. It is that special relationship which gives rise to the affirmative duty to protect and the public policy considerations as analyzed under the Rowland factors which determines whether the liability will be extended under a particular set of facts.
Up until now, there was a split in the California courts regarding the appropriate standard to be applied when determining if a defendant owed a duty of care to protect the plaintiff from injuries caused by a third party. For example, in a case where the plaintiff properly alleges a special relationship, the court may then move on to weigh the Rowland factors before determining whether liability will be extended to the defendant. In other cases, the court might extend liability if either the Rowland factors or the special relationship exists. Other courts combine the special-relationship analysis with the Rowland factors to determine whether a duty exists. Despite the extensive caselaw on this topic, the Courts of Appeal have remained confused as to what is the proper legal analysis that should be applied, until now. The Supreme Court of California finally tackled this issue in its most recent decision, Brown v. USA Taekwondo.
The Brown v. USA Taekwondo Case
In the Brown case, the plaintiffs were three young girls who trained in the Olympic sport of Taekwondo. They sued the defendants, USA Taekwondo (USAT), the US Olympic Committee (USOC), and their coach Marc Gitelman, after allegations that Gitelman had sexually abused the minor athletes for several years while they were under his care. (Brown, at *1). The young athletes traveled around the country with their coach competing in events sponsored by defendant USAT. (Id.) In the civil action, the plaintiff alleged that defendants USOC and USAT were liable for negligently failing to protect them from the sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of Gitelman even though they were on notice of the misconduct. (Id. at *2.) In fact, USAT suspended Gitelman as a coach, but they continued to allow him to coach at USAT competitions for several months after learning about the allegations. (Id.)
USOC and USAT challenged the complaint by submitting demurrers citing failure to adequately allege that they had an affirmative duty to insulate the plaintiffs from Gitelman’s abuse. (Id.) The trial court sustained both demurrers and dismissed the case. The plaintiffs appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgement as to USOC but reversed as to USAT. (Id.) In doing so, the Court of Appeals applied a two-part legal analysis to determine whether the plaintiffs had adequately alleged that USAT had a duty to protect them from Gitelman’s abuse. (Id.) First, the Court looked whether the special relationship existed, and then, it applied the Rowland factors to determine whether public policy favors restricting liability before determining that USAT had a legal duty to protect the plaintiffs from Gitelman’s abuse. (Id. at *3.)
The California Supreme Court made it clear that the proper analysis in this type of situation a two-step analysis. First, there must be a determinization as to whether there is a special relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff giving rise to an affirmative legal duty to protect. (Id. at *8.) Second, if such a relationship exists, the court must then weigh the Rowland factors to determine whether liability should be limited. (Id. at *9.) According to the Court, this is the proper analysis to employ given the strong reluctance by courts to impose liability for nonfeasance. (Id. at *5.)
Given the recent decision by the Supreme Court of California in Brown, we now have clarification on the proper standard to apply when determining liability for third-party acts. If you have been injured in an accident and what to know who you can hold liable for your injuries consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer to help you navigate the challenging concept of third-party liability.