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In a ruling that has county officials breathing in relief and women’s advocates sighing in despair, the California Supreme Court on Monday held that government entities aren’t liable for crimes that occur on public property. “The general rule is that although the government may assume responsibility for providing adequate police protection against third-party violence, this does not create a legal duty that normally will give rise to civil liability,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for a unanimous court. “In this and other jurisdictions,” he added, “it is well established that public entities generally are not liable for failing to protect individuals against crime.” The ruling came in a case involving the murder of a woman by her ex-husband in a courthouse hallway, and it quickly roused a sharp rebuke from Los Angeles’ California Women’s Law Center, which had filed an amicus curiae brief with the court. “To require women to face their abusers if they want to keep their kids or get a restraining order, and then to say that the state — after requiring them to face their abusers — has no special duty to protect those women, is just outrageous,” said staff attorney LeAnna Gutierrez. “I mean, they’re being forced to be in close proximity with the person that they know to be extremely violent.” In Zelig v. County of Los Angeles, 02 C.D.O.S. 4331, the county and its sheriff’s department were sued for wrongful death by the three children of Eileen Zelig, who was gunned down by her ex-husband, Dr. Harry Zelig, in an L.A. courthouse hallway while awaiting a 1995 child- and spousal-support hearing. The Zelig children argued that the government agencies were liable for not providing reasonable security for a foreseeable act, considering that Mrs. Zelig had told county officials several times about receiving death threats. The county argued that California law immunizes government agencies from liability except in certain statutorily expressed circumstances. In 1999, L.A.’s 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled for the Zeligs, saying that counties and other government entities could be held liable for harm caused by criminal activity on their property. The high court reversed the appeal court almost across the board. It rejected a finding that the county, by requiring Eileen Zelig to attend family court, had established a special relationship with her that created a duty of care under Civil Code � 1714. And it saw no causal relationship between the county’s duty, under Government Code � 834, to be aware of defective property conditions and the events that led to Zelig’s death. “The court of appeal’s expansive view of governmental liability potentially could undermine the balanced scheme set out in the Tort Claims Act,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in his 47-page ruling. “The rule embraced by that court could impose liability for failure to protect persons from third-party crime at any public facility where passions run high — from a crowded office of the Department of Motor Vehicles to the offices of a child-protective services agency.” In a footnote, the court was hostile to the Zeligs’ request that it take judicial notice of materials showing the volume of business in Los Angeles County Superior Court and the nationwide trends in violent crime. “In light of our conclusion regarding Government Code Section 835,” the opinion read, “we need not reach the issue whether the attack on Eileen was foreseeable.” The Zeligs fared no better with their claim that L.A. County was liable because it had allegedly deprived Eileen Zelig of her constitutional right to due process of the law by putting her life in danger by not assuring her safety at the courthouse. The high court ruled that government agencies are required to provide care and protection only when they have incarcerated someone or deprived individuals of the ability to care for themselves. “Plaintiffs offer no relevant authority,” George wrote, “for the proposition that all litigants who must be present in the courthouse to pursue their litigation should be considered to be in de facto custody or to be the beneficiaries of a special relationship entitling them to enhanced protection against third-party crime, and our research discloses only authority to the contrary.” Edward Medvene, a partner at L.A.’s Talcott, Lightfoot, Vandevelde, Sadowsky, Medvene & Levine who argued the case for the Zeligs, couldn’t be reached for comment. Steven Renick, a partner at L.A.’s Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez who represented the county, couldn’t have been happier with Monday’s ruling. “Obviously, we’re quite pleased that the supreme court has recognized that the court of appeal had very substantially changed the existing law regarding municipal liability,” he said. “And essentially what the supreme court did is put things back the way they were. “We’re pleased,” he added, “that the court realized the court of appeal had taken the law someplace the Legislature had not intended it to go.”

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