Interesting CA case on sheriff’s failure to start SAR & run SAR

County lost appeal because employees’ actions were out of line and the deceased, at least from the facts presented could have easily been found before he died.

Arista v. Cnty. of Riverside (Cal. App. 2021)

State: California; Court of Appeal of the State of California Fourth Appellate District Division Two

Plaintiff: Christyna Arista

Defendant: County of Riverside

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful death, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress

Defendant Defenses: Government Code section 8453, which provides public employees are not liable for the failure to provide sufficient police protection; section 820.2, which provides that public employees are not liable for injuries that result from acts or omissions stemming from discretionary decisions; Health and Safety Code section 1799.107, subdivision (b), which provides that emergency rescue personnel are not liable for injuries caused by actions taken within the scope of their employment, unless the actions were done in bad faith or with gross negligence

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2021

Summary

A lawsuit was filed against Riverside County Sheriff’s department for negligent Search and Rescue training and procedures. The trial court granted the Counties motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff’s appealed. The case was sent back by Appellate Court for trial. The deceased died of hypothermia and was easily found by friends of the deceased. Sheriff’s department assumed deceased was having an affair and did not search for him.

Facts

On March 1, at 3:00 p.m., when Marin [deceased] failed to return home, Wife called and texted Marin’s cell phone every 15 minutes but received no answer until 5:14 p.m. when Marin answered Wife’s call. Marin said he had fallen from his bicycle and suffered an injury. Marin seemed confused and disoriented but said that, said that, prior to the fall, he had reached Santiago Peak and was on his way home. At 5:32 p.m., Wife began calling various agencies, e.g., a ranger station, but was unable to reach anyone. At 5:36 p.m., Wife called 911 and the operator advised her to wait at home. At 6:30 p.m., Corona Police arrived at Wife’s home, and Wife explained that Marin was injured, on his way down from Santiago Peak, and lightly dressed.

At 8:00 p.m., Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Zaborowski2 arrived at the Family’s home. At that point, deputies had already checked trailheads in the CNF, traveled along access roads looking for Marin, pinged Marin’s cell phone, and contacted civilian volunteers to tell them “to be ‘on alert’ for a potential call to assist.” Wife provided Zaborowski with the same information she provided the Corona Police. Zaborowski told Wife that the ping of Marin’s phone showed he was in the area of Santiago Peak. Zaborowski also said Verizon service employees were in the area of Santiago Peak and had been asked to “be vigilant for Marin’s location.”

Lieutenant Hall (Hall) was the Sheriff’s Department’s Incident Commander for the search for Marin. Hall stayed at his home during the search. He was not trained in search and rescue. Hall did not consider the risks that Marin faced from the weather. Hall did not know Santiago Peak has an elevation of 5,689 feet. Hall was unaware that the trail Marin had planned to use has an elevation of 3,000 to 4,000 feet. Hall did not know what, if any, equipment Marin had with him for cold weather.

At 10:00 p.m., Detective Holder arrived at the Family’s home. While at the residence, Holder spoke to Zaborowski. Holder said “he [(Holder)] was ‘not sure what we’re doing here,’ that Marin was ‘probably just running around on his wife’ and was ‘just covering his tracks,’ suggesting that Marin was not missing, but instead involved in some adulterous affair.” Holder informed Wife that the Sheriff’s Department was suspending its search for the night and would resume searching in the morning. Wife asked Holder, ” ‘[W]hat are the chances he [Marin] dies of hypothermia?’ ” because the temperatures at Santiago Peak were expected to be in the mid-30s to mid-40s. “Holder replied that Marin was ‘a grown man’ and that ‘he can survive the night.’ ” Holder further said “that ‘if it was a child, [he] would send a helicopter out there right now.’ ”

After being told that the search was suspended for the night, Wife organized relatives to perform their own search. Unidentified County personnel asked Wife not to initiate her own search because the County would conduct the search. Nevertheless, Wife and six relatives began searching for Marin, on foot, at 3:45 a.m. Pat Killiam who is a mountain biker and search and rescue volunteer “had heard about the ‘missing biker,’ ” and began his own search for Marin using a motorcycle on the access roads. Killiam found Marin’s body on a maintained fire access road. The precise time that Killiam found Marin is not alleged in the TAC. Marin died of hypothermia due to being exposed to cold environmental temperatures.

The County’s Sheriff’s Department has an Off-Highway Vehicle Enforcement unit (ROVE) that is equipped with all-terrain vehicles that have lights. The vehicles can operate in the mud at night. ROVE was not dispatched to search for Marin. Because Marin was on a maintained fire access road, he could have been rescued by people using all-terrain vehicles.

The real basis of the claims of the plaintiff were summed up by the Appellant court in this statement.

In the Family’s wrongful death cause of action, it alleged the following: The Sheriff’s Department assumed the responsibility of searching for Marin by starting the search and telling Wife not to conduct her own search. The Family alleged that it relied upon the County to rescue Marin after the County assumed control of the search and rescue. In taking responsibility for the search, the Sheriff’s Department owed a duty to conduct the search with reasonable care.

The County should not have assigned Hall to be the incident commander for the search because Hall lacked search and rescue training. Hall acted with reckless disregard for life by managing the search from his living room. The County’s employees acted with bad faith and gross negligence by (1) failing to contact people who had knowledge of the trails and service roads in the CNF; (2) failing to deploy the ROVE team on the night of March 1; and (3) failing to consult a medical professional with knowledge of hypothermia regarding Marin’s possible injuries and the risk of hypothermia.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

After reviewing the procedural issues on appeal, the court looked at the arguments. The first was whether or not the County had immunity from suit for its rescue personnel under several California statutes.

Health and Safety Code section 1799.107, subdivision (b), provides, “[N]either a public entity nor emergency rescue personnel shall be liable for any injury caused by an action taken by the emergency rescue personnel acting within the scope of their employment to provide emergency services, unless the action taken was performed in bad faith or in a grossly negligent manner.”

The family, the plaintiff’s, argued there could not be any immunity because the actions of the individuals were grossly negligent. The Appellate court agreed that if the actions of the county personnel were found to be grossly negligent, then the individuals were not protected by the statute.

Gross negligence if plead and proved supersedes an immunity statute in California. Unless the statute provides immunity to the entire claim, the statute does not provide immunity: “…it is an error to grant summary judgment unless the defense is “a complete defense to the entire action.”

Knowing that based on the clothing and the weather conditions, there was a good chance that the deceased would die of hypothermia, failure to start a search by the sheriff’s department employee could be considered gross negligence.

I suspect that these factors were made more apparent when the deceased was so easily found by the family members when they searched.

The next immunity statute was Section 845, which was created to give law enforcement wide range in making budgetary decisions. Meaning how many law enforcement personnel were hired and deployed to certain areas within a community could not be subject to judicial scrutiny.

Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for failure to establish a police department or otherwise to provide police protection service or, if police protection service is provided, for failure to provide sufficient police protection service

No budgetary decisions were made in deciding not to rescue the deceased. The lawsuit was not over whether or not enough SAR personnel were sent to the scene, the lawsuit was based on negligence in handling the entire incident.

The Family is not suing the County for budgetary or political decisions. The Family is suing due to the alleged negligence of particular County employees. The County asserts the Family’s lawsuit is partially based upon a failure to provide adequate search and rescue training to its Sheriff’s Department personnel.

The final immunity is usually the broadest and provides the most protection to state and local governments. The actions of an employee of a local, state or federal government are discretionary. As long as the decisions of the employee are not arbitrary, fanciful, or unreasonable, the decision will be upheld.

The appellate court did not rule the actions of the sheriff departments employees were not discretionary, only that the county, if relying on that defense must show that each of the decisions made by the employee was discretionary. The appellate court in this case increased the burden on the county to prove immunity in this case.

If the County seeks to have every material search decision Hall made protected under section 820.2 then it needs to provide evidence of what material decisions were made, provide evidence of the discretion exercised in making those decisions, and provide argument as to why each of those decisions is deserving of immunity under section 820.2. Without that information, it was not proper to grant summary judgment pursuant to the discretionary decision immunity (§ 820.2) because the County only addressed a portion of the Family’s allegations.

The motion for summary judgment granted for the County by the trial court was overruled, and the case was sent back for further adjudication.

So Now What?

Most states have various forms of immunity to protect state and county employees from lawsuits over the discretionary parts of their job. Governments would never accomplish anything if every time they did something a citizen did not like, the citizen sued them. Most Search and Rescue litigation is avoided or dismissed quickly because of this.

Here, the county’s overt actions in responding to the family as well as how easily the victim was eventually found, give credence to the claims of the family. Suggesting a mountain biker was not missing but having an affair may be a common issue in the minds of law enforcement, but expressing it or placing it in the paperwork is just stupid.

This decision seems to be a stretch, though based on the facts it does not seem to be out of line. What it is, is an example of doing dumb things, treating people badly or making a judge made can still make you lose no matter how strong the law is on your side.

Don’t do stupid things, treat people right, do your job and when in doubt, try to help would have prevented this lawsuit and probably this death.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Jim Moss is an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the outdoor recreation community. He represents guides, guide services, outfitters both as businesses and individuals and the products they use for their business. He has defended Mt. Everest guide services, summer camps, climbing rope manufacturers; avalanche beacon manufactures and many more manufacturers and outdoor industries. Contact Jim at Jim@Rec-Law.us

Jim is the author or co-author of six books about the legal issues in the outdoor recreation world; the latest is Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law.

To see Jim’s complete bio go here and to see his CV you can find it here.

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