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Eileen Zelig told anyone who would listen that her ex-husband was dangerously unstable. He had threatened several times to kill her, she said, warning that he might do so in the very hallways of the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Zelig had every right to be frightened. On Sept. 1, 1995, Dr. Harry Zelig pulled out a .38-caliber revolver and gunned down his former wife on the second floor of the downtown courthouse while both were preparing for a child- and spousal-support hearing. The murder took place in front of the couple’s horrified 6-year-old daughter, Lisa. Today, lawyers for Lisa and two older siblings, Dana and Sean, go before the California Supreme Court to argue that Los Angeles County — which didn’t have metal detectors in its courthouses seven years ago — should be held liable for not providing reasonable security for a foreseeable act. The county is defending itself, in part, by calling the murder a random, unforeseeable event and arguing that California law immunizes public entities from liability except in a few situations specifically authorized by statute. The case, Zelig v. County of Los Angeles, S081791, has attracted more than its fair share of attention. The county has won amicus curiae support from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the Civil Justice Association of California, the California State Association of Counties and 115 cities and towns statewide. The Zelig children, meanwhile, have the backing of the Consumer Attorneys of California and eight children’s and women’s rights groups, including the California Women’s Law Center and the Shelter Against Violent Environments. The county’s backers fear that a favorable ruling for the Zelig children — even in an age when metal detectors block virtually all courthouse doors — could “dramatically expand the potential liability” of government agencies and send security budgets soaring into the stratosphere. Their opponents, meanwhile, say the public’s safety is foremost and that it’s important to let people — especially domestic violence victims required to appear in court — know they will be protected. “These are places where there should be law enforcement agents monitoring,” says LeAnna Gutierrez, the Nina C. Leibman Fellow staff attorney for Los Angeles’ California Women’s Law Center. “Simply erecting metal detectors is not going to solve the problem.” Eileen Zelig died despite providing court officials and law enforcement officers with written and recorded proof of death threats and having obtained restraining orders preventing her ex-husband from carrying firearms. Dr. Zelig was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997 and was sentenced to 27 years in prison. The couple’s children sued in 1996, saying Los Angeles County had failed to provide a reasonably safe environment in its courthouse and should have known there was a risk of danger, especially in family court and in light of their mother’s frequently expressed concerns. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias tossed out the suit. But in 1999 the 2nd District Court of Appeal stunned county governments by saying they could be held liable for harm caused by criminal activity on their property. Exposure was possible, the court ruled, because public entities under Civil Code � 1714 have a special relationship with courthouse patrons that creates a duty of care, and under Government Code � 835 they must be aware of defective conditions, such as inadequate security, that foreseeably could result in harm. “We think the county has an obligation to take reasonable steps to discover criminal acts that are or are likely to be committed in its courthouses,” Justice Richard Aldrich wrote, “and to warn about or protect against … foreseeable harm because many have no choice but to utilize the courts.” Justices H. Walter Croskey and Joan Dempsey Klein concurred. The justices also rejected the county’s contention that Government Code � 845 immunizes public entities from failing to provide sufficient police services. That law, the court said, doesn’t apply to warnings, building maintenance to deter criminal activity or metal detectors. In court papers, the lawyer for Los Angeles County sticks tightly to his legal arguments, letting the amici relate how they believe an unfavorable ruling would play out in the real world. “Very typically, in any sort of case, you put on the parade of horribles,” Steven Renick, a partner in L.A.’s Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, says. “But in this case you don’t have to put them out. They just jump at you.” In his opening brief, Renick attacks the appeal court ruling on all fronts. Not only are public entities immunized from liability in this kind of circumstance, he wrote, there also was no special relationship between Los Angeles County and Mrs. Zelig that would warrant a special duty of care. In addition, he argues, the appeal court’s assumption that violence is inherent in family court cannot form the basis for foreseeability. He also insists that staffing for metal detectors constitutes police services that would be immunized from liability. “What is at issue,” he wrote, “is whether a municipality will be held liable for [an] unexpected, unforeseeable random act of violence simply because it happened to involve a person who was on the municipality’s property in the course of utilizing governmental services. The answer clearly has to be ‘no,’ however much we might sympathize with the plaintiffs and desire to help them.” Melissa Widdifield, the partner at L.A.’s Lightfoot, Vandevelde, Sadowsky, Medvene & Levine who wrote the briefs for the Zelig children, declines to comment. But in court papers she states that courts are unique in American society and that it is paramount that everyone who enters one should feel safe. “Patently, this is not a case, as the county’s facile tautology would have it, which broadly threatens all municipalities with liability on account of random acts of violence fortuitously occurring on their property,” she wrote. “Rather, this case focuses on the county as owner, landlord and caretaker of the county courthouses and, in that capacity, on its breach of its clear obligations designed to give every day, practical effect to our government’s promise that access to the courts be meaningful.” In its amicus brief, the California Women’s Law Center pointed out that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 and claims the lives of four women each day. “A decision against [the Zelig children] at this stage,” the center’s lawyers wrote, “will send a message to the tens of thousands of California women in abusive relationships that the counties are under no duty to make any reasonable effort to make their courthouses safe.”

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