What happens when a civilian is conscripted into police work?
On 13 March 2011 Kristine Constantino phoned the California Highway PAtrol from her home in Kettenpom, California. She whispered “help me” and that she lived at the end of the Kettenpom airstrip. The dispatcher formed the impression that she was trying to avoid being overheard. The message was passed to the dispatcher of Trinity County Sheriff’s Office, who tried to call Constantino without success. The call for help was passed to the Office’s Corporal Ron Whitman.
Apparently because Kettenpom is a remote town, Whitman called Norma Gund who lived near the airfield. He asked her to do a welfare-check on Constantino. He said that Constantino has called 911 for help, which probably related to bad weather. He did not advise her that the caller was whispering or trying not to be overheard. Gund and her husband went to Constantino’s home. Constantino and her partner Christopher Richardson had immediately before been murdered by Tomas Gouverneur, who was still at the scene and attacked the Gunds, causing significant injuries (the full sequence of events is detailed in an article from radio station KMUD).
The Gunds sued Trinity County as Whitman’s employer. Thye alleged that he had negligently misrepresented that the call for help was likely weather related and did not suggest a crime in progress. The County applied to dismiss the claim On the grounds that the Gunds’ only remedy was in workers’ compensation: Labour Code §3602. California’s Labour Code §3366 provides that:
… each person engaged in the performance of active law enforcement service as part of the posse comitatus or power of the county, and each person … engaged in assisting any peace officer in active law enforcement service at the request of such peace officer, is deemed to be an employee of the public entity that he or she is serving or assisting in the enforcement of the law, and is entitled to receive compensation from the public entity in accordance with the provisions of this division.
The trial court agreed and dismissed the claim: Gund v County of Trinity (Trinity County Superior Court, Scheuler J, 27 April 2014, unreported). The Gunds appealed.
The trial court’s decision was affirmed by the Third District Court of Appeal. The Court noted that if Corporal Whitman had responded to Constantino’s call for unspecified ‘help’, he would have been engaged in active law enforcement because
any 911 call seeking unspecified help presents a risk of criminal activity. Since the deputy would have been engaged in active law enforcement had he responded, plaintiffs were engaged in active law enforcement when they responded to the 911 call on his behalf — regardless of the deputy’s misrepresentations to plaintiffs that the call was likely weather-related and omission of facts that the caller whispered for help, was disconnected, and did not answer a return call. Even though plaintiffs were unaware of the facts suggesting potential criminal activity and felt lulled into a false sense of security by the deputy’s misrepresentations and omissions, plaintiffs still knew they were responding to a 911 call for help, the nature of which was not certain.
It followed that §3366 applied. Because the Gunds could claim workers compensation, they had no common law damages claim.
Gund v County of Trinity (2018) __ Cal.App.4th __.