Thursday, March 11, 2004
Justices Question School’s Liability in Deaths Caused by Deranged Driver
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Several California Supreme Court justices yesterday questioned whether the parents of two children killed by a deranged motorist who deliberately drove his Cadillac through a chain-link fence and plowed into them on the playground of their day care center have a viable negligence claim against the center and its landlord.
Declaring that Steven Abrams was “hellbent on murdering children” and could have used firearms or any number of methods for accomplishing that goal, Justice Marvin R. Baxter asked the plaintiff’s attorneys, “How is a landowner going to predict that?”
Justice Joyce L. Kennard wondered aloud: “Was that type of conduct foreseeable by this daycare center?”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George suggested that it was impossible for a school to prevent harm from those with homicidal tendencies. “Schools don’t have enough to keep their basic classes going, let alone erect fortresses,” George said.
The case centers around the actions of Abrams, who in May 1999 plunged his Cadillac at 40 mph through the chain-link fence surrounding the Southcoast Early Childhood Learning Center. Some children on the crowded playground were dragged under the car, and Brandon Wiener, 3, and Sierra Soto, 4, were killed.
Abrams, who was eventually convicted of murder, told authorities he had thought about killing for several years and that voices in his head told him to do it.
Parents of the two slain youngsters sued the center and landowner First Baptist Church, alleging the playground was “situated on the corner of a busy street with a considerable traffic flow....There should have been formidable obstacles, fences and safeguards to protect the children from out-of-control cars.”
Orange Superior Court Judge H. Michael Brenner, granting summary judgment to the defendants, said they could not have foreseen that a “mad man” would decide to commit mass murder, and that a stronger barrier would not have deterred him.
But the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Div. Three reversed. The court said that even if the defendants could not have anticipated the specific conduct involved, they could have foreseen that an automobile might be driven on to the playground, intentionally or otherwise.
The deaths may have been averted, the Fourth District justices reasoned, had the since-closed facility erected a sturdier fence or located the playground farther from the street.
The attorney for the parents of the slain children yesterday urged the high court to uphold the lower court panel’s decision.
“There is a high duty of care for children who cannot take care of themselves,” Federico Sayre told the justices during the hour-long hearing in San Francisco.
The justices already have ruled in two rape cases that owners of an apartment complex and a parking garage were not liable for the rapes because the owners did not have a duty to the victims.
In those cases, however, the high court announced a vague standard under which landowners could be held liable if there were prior criminal acts on the premises and the landowner did not take steps to alleviate future crimes.
Sayre responded to the justices’ comments about foreseeability by noting that a runaway postal truck accidentally crashed through the same fence at 5 mph. “It put everybody on notice that this fence was inadequate,” he said.
Cindy Soto Beckett, the mother of Sierra Soto, said after the hearing that she is suing not for monetary damages but to protect children. “It’s really important to set a precedent for enhanced safety for daycare centers,” she said.
Beckett has, since her daughter’s death, become an activist in support of improved safety at preschools and an advocate of mandatory treatment of the mentally ill.
The case is Wiener v. Southcoast Childcare, S116358.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company