Municipal Liability for Intentional Acts of Others
A county may be liable for a released inmate’s crimes if the county knew or should have known the inmate was likely to attack others, the Washington Court of Appeals has held.
In Binshus v. Sate, the court explored an exception to Washington’s general rule that one is not liable for the international torts of another. Isaac Zamora was serving a six-month sentence for nonviolent offenses when his mother reported to personnel at the Skagit County Jail that her son was suffering from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. After she requested mental health assistance for Zamora, a licensed mental health care professional visited him in the jail. That interview convinced the counselor that Zamora needed treatment and/or medication for his rage, anxiety, and panic attacks. Although a physician approved a prescription for Zamora, it was not for an anti-psychotic drug but for a mood stabilizer. Zamora refused to take it and the medication the second mental health counselor recommended. During his jail time, Zamora was described as insolent toward jail staff, but not violent. He never received a complete mental health evaluation in jail.
Following his release, Zamora had further interactions with Skagit County. The very week he was released, his mother asked the police to remove him from her home, and she reported to the police that Zamora had mental illness. In the following two weeks, Zamora was the subject of two 911 calls, one for erratic behavior. He was also injured in a car accident, and the doctor who treated him discerned Zamora did not present a threat of harm to himself or others. In another two weeks, Zamora had a psychotic episode and killed six people and injured several others.
Nine plaintiffs, the estates of five of the people Zamora killed and four of the people he injured, asserted claims against various municipal entities for negligence. Skagit County moved for summary judgment, arguing it had no duty to the victims and that its alleged negligence was not a proximate cause of the harm to plaintiffs. The trial court granted summary judgment, and plaintiffs appealed.
The Court of Appeals analyzed the County’s duty on appeal. The question of whether a duty exists is usually a question of law. However, if the question of duty is based on proof of disputed facts, summary judgment is not proper. The Court of Appeals found that a dispute of fact about the existence of a duty precluded summary judgment.
Generally, one does not have the duty to control another person’s actions, and will not be subject to liability for another person’s intentional acts that cause harm to a third person. However, an exception exists when one has a duty to control that other person, for instance, when one takes charge of someone whom he knows or should know to be a likely cause of harm to others if not controlled. If a take-charge relationship is established, a duty arises, requiring the one who took charge to take reasonable precautions to protect others against reasonably foreseeable dangers posed by the person’s dangerous propensities.
The Court of Appeals examined two questions that arise from the exception to the general rule: (1) did Skagit County have a “take charge” relationship with Zamora; and (2) if so, did Skagit County know, or should it have known, Zamora was likely to cause bodily harm to others if not controlled.
There was no dispute that Skagit County had a take-charge relationship with Zamora while he was incarcerated. However, Skagit County argued that that relationship ended when Zamora was released from custody. The Court of Appeals believed that argument goes not to the existence of a duty, but to its scope, which is limited by foreseeability of danger to the victims. The evidence was disputed about whether Zamora’s conduct fell within the general field of danger that Skagit Valley should have anticipated. Based on the record, the Court of Appeals determined that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether Skagit County had a take-charge relationship with Zamora after his incarceration.
Genuine issues of material fact also existed as to whether Skagit County knew or should have known Zamora was likely to cause harm to others. Skagit County knew of Zamora’s lengthy criminal history. It received reports of Zamora’s mental illness before, during, and after his incarceration. It had opportunities and reasons to fully evaluate Zamora’s mental health, but did not do so. Because of this dispute of fact, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s summary judgment and remanded the case.
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