Sunday, April 10, 2005

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

That is a question that has been debated probably since those words were first recorded in chapter four of the Book of Genesis. A San Diego resident is suing a taco shop for an attack that occurred outside the shop, but witnessed by all three employees of the shop. Apparently, at no time did the employees even bother calling 911 to summon help. Greg Moran's account of the attack in the San Diego Union Tribune even has the attacker, a gang-member named Cuevas, going into the taco shop and retrieving a 15 inch butcher knife from the employees' kitchen area, which he then used to continue attacking the victim. A friend of the victim ran to another nearby restaurant and called 911.

The victim, Charles Morris IV, ultimately survived and has sued the taco shop owner. The case was thrown out by a San Diego Superior Court judge, but the Fourth District Court of Appeals later reinstated the case, ruling that a jury should decide whether the employees had even the minimal responsibility to dial 911 and call for help. This takes us to the California Supreme Court where the matter will be decided.

Personally, I believe the employees did have the minimal responsibility to call the police and an ambulance, but look at how the lawyer for the taco shop, Mark Israel, misrepresents the question at hand:

"Someone has been injured, or raped or murdered. The question here is, when is it fair to hold the landowner responsible for the conduct of a third party?"

I don't believe Charles Morris is attempting to hold the shop owner, Silvano De La Torre, responsible for the conduct of a third party. However, Silvano De La Torre can certainly be held responsible for the conduct of his employees, and that seems to be the question under consideration. We can see that question clearly defined in the Appeals Court ruling (PDF):

For reasons we shall explain, we hold De La Torre had no duty to take preventive measures such as hiring security guards, issuing warnings, or screening employees. However, because we conclude a special relationship existed between De La Torre and Morris, De La Torre's employees had a duty to take reasonable steps in response to the ongoing criminal conduct. A triable issue of fact exists as to whether De La Torre's employees breached the duty by failing to summon help for Morris. In defining the scope of this duty, we reject Morris's contention that the employees, who were in fear for their own safety, were required to refrain from complying with the gang member's demands for access to a knife.

The Appeals Court seems to clearly indicate that the employees were not responsible for getting directly involved, even to prevent the attacker from obtaining the knife, but that they had "a duty" to summon help for the victim. This seems perfectly reasonable to me, but Deborah La Fetra of the Pacific Legal Foundation doesn't even bother miscontruing the question. She simply objects to placing the onus of reporting crimes to save a person's life upon the employees who witness those crimes.

Deborah La Fetra, the lawyer for the foundation, said the appeals decision could lead down a "slippery slope" that would impose liability on any business whose employees witnessed a crime outside its establishment but did not summon help.

I should hope so! I agree that it is entirely different if we're discussing direct involvement, but simply picking up the phone and calling 911 seems like a reasonable burden. This should be an interesting story to follow.

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