Court finds state department immune from liability for sexual assault claim

Suit alleges negligent supervision, training, hiring and retention of government employee

Court finds state department immune from liability for sexual assault claim

The State Department of State Hospitals’ immunity under section 854.8(a)(2) of California’s Government Code barred Jane Doe’s lawsuit alleging that a department employee sexually abused her, the California Court of Appeal recently said.

In the case of State Department of State Hospitals v. The Superior Court of Napa County, Doe filed a complaint against the department and asked for damages for her injuries. She made the following claims:

  1. negligence
  2. negligent supervision, training, hiring, or retention
  3. sexual battery
  4. sexual assault
  5. statutory civil rights violations

According to Jane Doe, between 1997 and 1999 when she was a minor and a ward of the state and confined at Napa State Hospital, a department counselor brought her and other female residents to a sleeping facility in the evenings, frequently provided medication that made them drowsy, and sexually assaulted her and others. She alleged that the department knew or should have known that the counselor previously engaged in unlawful sexual conduct with other minors and continued doing so with her.

The department filed a demurrer. It asserted that it was immune from liability under section 854.8(a)(2) of the Government Code.

The trial court overruled the department’s demurrer with regard to Doe’s first, third, fourth, and fifth claims. It allowed Doe to amend her second claim to bring it within the scope of the exception to section 854.8. The department took the case to the appellate court.

The California Court of Appeal for the First District granted the department’s petition. The appellate court directed the trial court to sustain the department’s demurrer, without allowing Doe to amend her claim. The department was immune from liability for Doe’s complaint under section 854.8(a)(2), the appellate court explained.

The trial court found that section 815.2 of the Government Claims Act established minimum personnel standards, which triggered the immunity exception under section 855 of the Government Code.

The appellate court rejected the trial court’s interpretation. The appellate court ruled that, if a public agency could be vicariously liable under section 815.2 whenever a mental institution’s employee injured a patient, it would undercut the immunity under section 854.8(a)(2).

Immunity under section 854.8(a) was subject solely to the express exceptions in the Government Code, the appellate court held. Section 815.2 was not an exception and was instead a general liability provision of the Government Claims Act that established vicarious liability for government employees’ acts or omissions, the appellate court said.

Lastly, Doe asked the court to grant her leave to amend so that she could have an opportunity to allege that her claims fell within the immunity exception under section 855. The appellate court denied this request. It found that Doe failed to show that she could allege that the department violated any minimum standard that could sufficiently form the basis for liability under section 855.

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