Wednesday, May 19, 2010
C.A.: Officer Not Liable for Failing to Call Medical Help
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal yesterday ruled that a California Highway Patrol officer who responded to the scene of a single-car collision was not liable for failing to summon medical assistance to treat a passenger later rendered paraplegic by spinal injuries she sustained in the crash.
Div. Six held that nothing Officer Frank Lewis did after arriving at the accident scene placed Melissa Camp in harm’s way, and he therefore owed her no duty of care.
Camp and two others were passengers in a car driven by Ryan Funk on a country road near Santa Maria. The car went off the road after Funk misjudged a bend, hit an embankment and rolled completely over before coming to rest upright in a dirt field. Funk called 911 but assured the dispatcher that “Everyone’s OK.”
CHP officers responded to the accident, where they encountered Funk walking around near the road and Camp lying on the ground near the car. The other two passengers were seated in the car.
None of the passengers said they saw Camp get out of the car or remembered assisting her. Although the testimony regarding the position of Camp’s body, her level of responsiveness and her ability to move varied among the witnesses, it was undisputed that Lewis asked the group multiple times whether anyone was hurt or wanted an ambulance called, and members of the group consistently said no.
A friend later arrived to take Camp and the two passengers home, and the passengers claimed Lewis ordered them to leave. One passenger testified that he carried Camp to the friend’s car because she was unable to stand or walk, but he did not inform Lewis and did not ask for medical personnel to be called.
Funk, whose blood alcohol level was measured at 0.15, was arrested for misdemeanor driving under the influence.
Within a few hours of the crash, Camp was hospitalized and it was determined that she sustained a highly unstable burst fracture of the 11th thoracic vertebra, with the immediate loss of all three columns of bone support that protect the spinal cord.
She sued the State of California and Lewis on the theory that her injuries and resultant paraplegia were caused by Lewis’ negligence.
At trial before Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Timothy J. Staffel, a jury found Lewis negligent in ordering the passengers to leave the scene, a substantial factor in aggravating the injuries Camp sustained. The jury further found that Lewis had unreasonably concluded Camp was not injured, increasing her risk of harm.
The jury awarded Camp almost $2.7 million in damages, apportioning negligence between Lewis, Camp, Funk and the passenger who carried Camp away from the scene.
The state and Lewis both sought judgment notwithstanding the verdict and moved for a new trial, but Staffel denied both motions. He determined that Lewis voluntarily assumed a duty of care toward Camp when he began to “manage” the accident scene “for the benefit of the general public and the safety of those present,” and when Lewis ordered the passengers to go home.
“Taking control of the scene in this context, and issuing an ‘order to leave’ under the color of authority gave rise to an increased expectation of reliance by the plaintiff on Officer Lewis’ scene management and placed plaintiff in peril, increasing the risk of harm in a reasonably foreseeable manner,” Staffel said.
But Justice Kenneth R. Yegan, writing on appeal, explained that Staffel erred as a matter of law in finding a duty of care had arisen.
As Lewis did not move Camp or order her to be moved, Yegan posited, “[a]t most, the evidence demonstrates that Lewis relied on Camp’s statements and that he did nothing to alter her position, literally or figuratively.”
Yegan added that Lewis could not force Camp to consent to medical treatment and did nothing wrong with honoring Camp’s request that an ambulance not be called.
As for the possibility of liability arising from the officer’s order that the group disperse, Yegan concluded, “there was no alternative” since “[n]o one was going to spend the night in the field.”
He reasoned that since the group had already arranged for a ride home, Camp was going to depart the scene either on her own power or with the aid of her companions, and that Lewis’ order to do so could not have been the cause of the passenger’s decision to carry her away.
Justice Paul H. Coffee and Steven Z. Perren joined Yegan in his decision.
Attorneys on appeal were Deputy Attorney General Barbara A. Noble and Thomas G. Stolpman and Donna Silver of Stolpman, Krissman, Elber & Silver.
The case is Camp v. State of California, 10 S.O.S. 2620.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company