Tuesday, May 21, 2002
State High Court Bars Suit Over Shooting at Downtown Courthouse
Unanimous Opinion Written by Chief Justice George Says County Had No Duty to Screen for Weapons
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Los Angeles County cannot be sued for negligence in the death of a woman shot in the Central Courthouse by her ex-husband, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
The county owned Eileen Zelig no duty, either under state common law or a federal civil rights statute, to conduct weapons screening that would have revealed that Harry Zelig, then a San Fernando Valley physician, was carrying a gun, the justices said.
The high court ruling overturns a decision of this district’s Court of Appeal, Div. Three, which ruled in July 1999 that Zelig’s three children would be entitled to damages if it were shown that prior incidents of local courthouse violence placed the county on notice that stronger security measures were needed.
The Div. Thee panel, which heard the plaintiffs’ appeal after Superior Court Commissioner Emilie Elias sustained demurrers, said the plaintiffs could seek recovery for maintenance of a dangerous condition on public property.
But the high court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, said that theory was inapposite because the plaintiffs were “unable to point to any defective aspect of the purely physical condition of the property.” If they could, the chief justice added, they would still have to show a causal link between the defect and the wrongful death.
“In the present case, the risk of injury was not increased or intensified by the condition of the property, and the necessary causal connection between the condition of the property and Harry’s crime was not present. Indeed, the risk of injury to Eileen at the hands of her ex-husband was at least as great outside the courthouse. For example, he could just as readily have shot Eileen as she picked up one of her children from a public or private school.”
Since the county was entitled to dismissal, George said in a footnote, it was unnecessary for the justices to determine whether the county or the Superior Court—which was not named as a defendant—is the entity responsible for the condition of courthouse property.
The September 1995 shooting of Zelig, a 40-year-old Chatsworth resident, led to calls for improved security at the courthouse, culminating in the installation of metal detectors at all of the building’s entrances not long before the Court of Appeal handed down its ruling.
Under a policy posted at the courthouse, only active duty law enforcement officers and persons who have both a license to carry a weapon and the express written consent of the presiding judge are allowed to bring guns in. Officers may not bring their guns in if they are parties to a case.
Zelig was killed in a courthouse hallway in front of her 6-year-old daughter en route to a courtroom for a hearing over child and spousal support. Her ex-husband, a Woodland Hills physician who was 48 years old at the time, fired one shot from a .38-caliber pistol into her chest.
Harry Zelig, who claimed his ex-wife’s constant demands for support drove him to shoot her, was convicted in 1997 of first-degree murder and sentenced to 29 years to life in prison.
The complaint filed on behalf of the children by their maternal grandparents alleged that Eileen Zelig had called the bailiff on three occasions prior to scheduled court appearances to say that she was afraid of her ex-husband, had obtained restraining orders requiring him to divest himself of his firearms, and had provided the court with letters and recordings of telephone calls in which he had threatened to kill her.
The pleading asserted that the county should have installed metal detectors or undertaken other measures to prevent the bringing of weapons into the courthouse.
The county, the plaintiffs said was on notice of the potential danger caused by firearm possession in the courthouse, the often-violent emotions surrounding family law cases in general, and the particular threat posed to Eileen Zelig by her former husband.
But decisions on how to police courthouses, like policing decisions in general, belong to the political branches rather than the judiciary, George said yesterday, rejecting the Court of Appeal’s conclusion that there is a special duty owed to litigants exercising their constitutional right of access to courts.
The Court of Appeal based that conclusion, in part, on Zuniga v. Housing Authority (1995) 41 Cal.App.4th 82, which allowed a suit against the City of Los Angeles Housing Authority for failing to protect the victims of an arson fire allegedly set by drug dealers as an act of revenge for complaints about their activities.
The chief justice questioned whether Zuniga was correctly decided, saying there did not appear to be a causal connection the fire and any neglect of duty on the part of the authority.
A special duty might have existed there because of the landlord-tenant relationship, George said,. But the relationship between county and litigant is not of the same degree, he reasoned.
The case was argued in the high court by Edward M. Medvene of Talcott, Lightfoot, Vandevelde, Sadowsky, Medvene & Levine for the plaintiffs and Steven J. Renick of Manning & Marder Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez for the county. Amicus briefs supporting the Zeligs were filed on behalf of the California Women’s Law Center, the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, and other anti-domestic violence groups as well as by Consumer Attorneys of California.
Support for the county’s position came from Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the California State Association of Counties, 115 cities, and the Civil Justice Association of California.
The case is Zeling v. County of Los Angeles, 02 S.O.S. 2400.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company