Monday, July 17, 2006
Court of Appeal Allows Suit Over Rabbi’s Alleged Attack on Writer
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Jewish writer who claims that a prominent local rabbi attacked and injured her after they argued about Middle East politics can sue the organization he works for, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Reversing a contrary ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James A. Bascue, the panel said Wednesday there was sufficient evidence for a jury to decide whether Chaim Seidler-Feller was acting in the role and scope of his employment when he allegedly attacked Rachel Neuwirth three years ago.
Neuwirth sued Seidler-Feller along with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Los Angeles Hillel Council. The rabbi has headed the UCLA affiliate of Hillel, which serves Jewish students on more than 500 campuses throughout the world, for more than 30 years.
The suit resulted from a brouhaha outside Royce Hall on the Westwood campus, following an address by Harvard Law School’s Alan Dershowitz, who was promoting his book “The Case for Israel.”
Outside the hall were some Palestinian or pro-Palestinian demonstrators. The rabbi stopped to talk to one of them about an upcoming event involving Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian involved in an ongoing non-governmental peace effort.
Neuwirth, who has suggested in her writings that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is an impossibility, that responsibility for the Palestinians should be placed on the Arab nations, and that President Bush’s “road map” for Mideast peace is doomed to failure, attended the speech and overheard the rabbi’s conversation.
She alleges in her complaint that she “calmly” told the rabbi that Nusseibeh had been identified by Israeli intelligence during the Gulf War as having phoned Iraqi officials and urged them to “send the Scud missiles not to the Negev, but to more effective places.”
Neuwirth claims that Seidler-Feller then “flew into a rage,” called her “a liar,” grabbed and twisted her right hand and scratched her thumb and index finger with his fingernails. Neuwirth said she was shocked and outraged, causing her to exclaim that Seidler-Feller was a “kapo”—the title given to Jews who collaborated with the Nazis by helping administer concentration camps.
The rabbi had to be pulled off Neuwirth by “three or four large college men,” Neuwirth claims.
Neuwirth alleged causes of action for battery and infliction of emotional distress against the rabbi and claimed that Hillel was vicariously liable on those claims and directly liable for negligent retention.
Violent Tendencies Alleged
The plaintiff asserted that attending the Dershowitz event, of which Hillel was a co-sponsor; recruiting attendees for the upcoming event, and engaging in public discussion on issues of Jewish interest were within the scope of the rabbi’s duties. She also contended that Hillel should have been aware of Seidler-Feller’s tendency towards violence.
Bascue sustained Hillel’s demurrer to the claims of vicarious liability, finding that Seidler-Feller was not, as a matter of law, acting within the scope of his duties at the Hillel event. He overruled the demurrer as to the negligent retention cause of action, but later granted summary adjudication to the defendants on that issue.
Neuwirth appealed, but only as to the issue of vicarious liability. Justice Fred Woods, in an unpublished opinion for the Court of Appeal, said she had shown enough evidence for the panel to conclude that the issue was triable.
He cited a case in which the Court of Appeal held that a car rental agency had ratified an employer’s assault on a customer because it knew the employee was volatile, yet placed him in a sensitive situation where customers were likely to get emotional.
“Although the alleged attack here was not as directly related to respondents’ business, it cannot be determined as a matter of law based on the allegations of the SAC that the attack was purely a personal attack such as if it had occurred in similar circumstances in a supermarket,” the justice wrote. “It is not clear from the allegations whether the attack was personal or business-related. Consequently, whether the attack was attenuated from Seidler-Feller’s work, i.e., whether the attack arose out of Seidler-Feller’s employment or whether he substantially deviated from his duties for personal purposes, and whether the attack was unusual or startling given this rabbi’s duties and his prior history are fact issues which cannot be determined at the demurrer stage.”
Attorneys on appeal were Charles L. Fonarow for the plaintiff and Matthew J. Trostler and Casandra P. Cushman of Borton, Petrini & Conron for the defendants.
The case is Neuwirth v. Los Angeles Hillel Council, B18505.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company