Sheriff's office didn't breach duty of care in Veterans Home of California shooting, court says

In 2018, army veteran killed three Pathway Home employees and then himself

Sheriff's office didn't breach duty of care in Veterans Home of California shooting, court says

In the case of Golick et al. v. State of California et al., the Pathway Home treated a veteran’s psychological conditions beginning in early 2017. While there, he expressed anger and frustration at Pathway’s clinical staff because of their disagreements and threatened to shoot and kill them.

In 2018, a month after Pathway’s program terminated him, he went to the Yountville campus of the Veterans Home of California and took as hostages three Pathway employees: Christine Loeber, its executive director; Dr. Jennifer Golick, its clinical director; and Dr. Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba. He exchanged fire with a deputy sheriff of Napa County. He then shot and killed his hostages and himself.

The plaintiffs, who were the victims’ family members, filed wrongful death lawsuits against multiple defendants. These included the state defendants – consisting of the California Department of Veterans (CALVET) and related entities – and the county defendants – comprising Napa County, the county’s sheriff’s office, and the deputy sheriff.

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The plaintiffs made the following allegations:

  • Based on the 2008 Interagency Agreement between CALVET and the sheriff’s office, the office had a contractual duty to provide protection at the Veterans Home and to respond to service calls, including criminal-related calls;
  • The county defendants had a special relationship with Pathway’s employees and owed them a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect them from violent patients;
  • This duty was breached because the deputy sheriff failed to exercise reasonable care when using deadly force against the veteran and when he made unreasonable tactical decisions that sparked the veteran to kill the hostages and himself.

The trial court dismissed the county defendants from two of the wrongful death complaints. The trial court decided that the plaintiffs failed to prove the duty-of-care element of their negligence claims against the county defendants.

The California Court of Appeal for the First District agreed with the trial court’s decision to dismiss. First, the appellate court determined that the county defendants owed no duty of care under the special relationship doctrine because the sheriff’s office had no special relationship with the deceased employees arising out of the Interagency Agreement.

The plaintiffs failed to include the agreement and its terms in their pleadings, the appellate court noted. Further, the plaintiffs’ argument that the sheriff’s office had a contractual obligation to respond to service calls at the Veterans Home did not prove that the sheriff’s office had a contractual duty to protect the deceased employees from the veteran or to otherwise prevent Pathway’s patients from harming Pathway’s staff members, the court said.

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Second, the appellate court held that the deputy sheriff did not increase the risk of harm that the deceased employees already faced as the targeted victims of the veteran’s crimes. The alleged connections between the deputy sheriff’s actions and the veteran’s crimes were speculative, the appellate court said.

The appellate court found that the plaintiffs were faulting the deputy sheriff for doing too much – including by opening the door and by firing the first shots – while also blaming him for doing too little – including by failing to enter the room and by failing to shoot the veteran.

Lastly, the appellate court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the deputy sheriff failed to act reasonably when using deadly force.

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