Torts – Duty of Care to Known Intoxicated Persons

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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Jason Carlsen v. Sarah Koivumaki and Zachary Gudelunas

Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District (Shasta) (July 7, 2014)

Courts are often called upon to struggle with the issue of responsibility of others for the actions of intoxicated persons.  This case dealt with whether one person could be held responsible for going to the precipice of a cliff with an intoxicated person, and with failing to assist that person once he fell over the cliff.

Defendants Sarah Koivumaki and Zachary Gudelunas were at a party and agreed to give a ride home to plaintiff Jason Carlsen, who was “clearly intoxicated” at the time.  Zach asked Jason if he wanted to go to “The Bluffs,” a cliff overlooking the Sacramento River, and Jason said “no.” The three then left the party and drove to a store where Jason stole a 5th of rum.  They proceeded to a second party where Jason had shots of rum; then they drove to The Bluffs to watch the sunrise.  They sat on a blanket at the cliff’s edge, drinking the rum Jason had stolen.  According to Sarah, Jason fell within thirty minutes of their arrival.  He tried to hang on to the edge of the cliff before losing his grip and falling.  Sarah heard him fall down the cliff side and land on the rocks below.

Sarah and Zach ran to the car but did not call 911 because they were afraid they would get into trouble for being intoxicated or causing Jason’s fall.  They spent about an hour trying to locate Jason, and then drove away from the scene discussing Jason’s “suicide”.  At about 8:30 a.m. the next morning, Sarah told her mother about Jason committing suicide and her mother told her to call 911.  Instead, defendants drove to the police station and reported the incident at 9:20 a.m.  Jason was found about a half an hour later.  He had no recollection of even being on The Bluffs.

Jason sued Sarah and Zach for assault and battery, negligence, willful misconduct, and intentional inflection of emotional distress.  He claimed that defendants put him in peril by bringing him to the edge of the cliff when he was highly intoxicated, leading to his fall, and that they aggravated his injuries by waiting several hours to inform the authorities of the fall.   Sarah brought a motion for summary judgment, claiming there was no evidence she touched or threatened Jason or breached any duty of care to him.  The trial court ruled that Jason failed to meet his burden because he had no recollection of being at The Bluffs, much less falling, and it could not be reasonably inferred from the evidence that Sarah pushed or otherwise caused him to fall.  The trial court said there was no special relationship between Jason and Sarah such that Sarah owed Jason a duty of care, and that there was no evidence that Sarah engaged in any outrageous conduct.

Jason appealed.  As to the assault and battery, the Court of Appeal agreed that there was no evidence to support a claim of assault and battery.  However, the Court of Appeal held that the evidence was sufficient to state causes of action for negligence and willful misconduct.

The Court noted that a person who has not created a peril is not liable in tort merely for failure to take affirmative action to assist or protect another unless there is some special relationship between them which gives rise to a duty to act.  The typical special relationship is a situation where the plaintiff is particularly vulnerable and dependent upon the defendant, who has some control over the plaintiff’s welfare.  A defendant found to have a special relationship with another may owe an affirmative duty to protect the other person from foreseeable harm, or come to the aid of another, in the face of ongoing harm or medical emergency.  (Citing Rotolo v. San Jose Sports & Entertainment, LLC. (2007) Cal.App.4th 327, 325).

Here, Jason alleged that defendants were negligent because they were directly involved in creating the conditions that placed him in peril, and their affirmative acts were a substantial factor in his initial fall.  The complaint also alleges that defendants owed Jason a duty to call 911 or otherwise summon aid due to the nature of the special relationship among the parties because defendant’s conduct caused or contributed to placing Jason in peril.  Jason said defendants breached that duty by waiting several hours before reporting the incident.  Jason said his presence at the edge of the cliff was closely connected with defendant’s conduct in inviting him and driving him to a remote location.

The court concluded that, from these facts and supporting evidence, a jury reasonably could infer that Sarah breached her duty of ordinary care owed to Jason, and as a direct and proximate result of her breach, Jason fell from the cliff.  Sarah played an active role in placing Jason in a position of peril.  She and Zach were close friends and were together at the party.  She was present when Zach agreed to drive Jason home, and she knew he was highly intoxicated.  She and Zach walked with Jason from the roadside to The Bluffs and sat on the blanket with him drinking the rum he had stolen.  Sarah was not a passive participant.  The only thing she did not do was drive the car.

The court held that the complaint made out a legally cognizable claim that Sarah breached her duty to use ordinary care by participating and bringing Jason to the edge of the cliff, knowing he was highly intoxicated.

As to the willful misconduct cause of action, the court held that, if a jury found that Sarah owed a duty of care, and breached it, Jason could pursue his cause of action for willful conduct.

COMMENT

This case expands the availability of damages for negligence and willful misconduct by enlarging the definition of a “special relationship” giving rise to a duty of care.  The court decided that companions of a highly intoxicated person had a duty to get him home safely because he was in a particularly vulnerable state and depended on them.

For a copy of the complete decision, see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/C070671.PDF 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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