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A middle-aged couple severely injured when they went to check on a neighbor at the request of a law enforcement officer should not be awarded damages other than workers compensation benefits, even though they were not employed by the local authority, the California Supreme Court held Thursday.
In Gund v. County of Trinity, the court affirmed a trial court’s ruling that the couple was engaging in active law enforcement service when they followed the officer’s instructions, and therefore entitled to workers compensation and restricted by the exclusive remedy provision under California state law.
On March 13, 2011, the California Highway Patrol received a phone call from a female caller who lived in the southwest corner of Trinity County, a sparsely populated and mountainous county covering more than 3,000 square miles.
The sheriff’s office was nearly 100 miles from the source of the call. The dispatcher thought the woman may have been trying to call 911 in secret, but nonetheless tried to call the woman back twice without success. Corporal Ronald Whitman of the Trinity Sheriff’s Office knew Norma and James Gund lived nearby the woman and asked them to check on her.
He mentioned that the woman on the phone told the dispatcher “help me” but relayed no more information. He also said she may have just been calling because a storm was approaching, but he did ask the Gunds if they’d ever met the woman’s boyfriend and if he seemed violent.
The Gunds drove to the woman’s home, where they were attacked by a man who had just murdered the woman and her boyfriend. They both sustained cuts to the throat and Mr. Gund was punched and tased, but he managed to disarm the attacker and the couple escaped.
The Gunds filed a complaint against Trinity County and the corporal alleging liability and misrepresentation, claiming that Corporal Whitman falsely assured them that the neighbor’s call was weather-related and knowingly withheld facts.
The county and corporal moved for summary judgment, arguing that workers compensation was the Gunds’ exclusive remedy. A trial court granted the motion and the Gunds appealed.
The California Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in a 5-2 decision. California laws treat members of the public who engage in “active law enforcement service” at a peace officer’s request as eligible for workers compensation benefits, and the court held that the Gunds did engage in “active law enforcement service” when they went to their neighbor’s house at the request of the corporal and sustained significant injuries.
The court found that the intent of California’s law was to make workers comp coverage available whenever a peace officer requests assistance in “active law enforcement service” because citizens providing assistance “may not always know the extent of risk a response implicates.”
The Gunds argued that they should not be subjected to the exclusive remedy because of the corporal’s misrepresentations, which they claimed rendered the assistance “involuntary,” but the court disagreed.
“Whether or not any alleged omissions in Corporal Whitman’s request could conceivably prove relevant to legal actions alleging malfeasance, they do not change our conclusion about the scope of workers compensation in this tragic case,” the court said.
The dissenting justices wrote that they could not accept that “an unarmed, untrained middle-aged couple, by stumbling upon an active murder scene, were in fact working as law enforcement officers.”
“Workers’ compensation may be a simpler path to compensation for the Gunds,” the dissenting justices wrote, but the “majority’s ruling precludes the Gunds from seeking pain and suffering damages … they have suffered since becoming the victims of a particularly brutal attack … The Gunds had every reason to believe Corporal Whitman and almost lost their lives in doing so. They should not lose their tort claims as well.”