Colonial Van & Storage, Inc. v. Superior Court

Decision Date18 March 2022
Docket NumberB317125
Citation76 Cal.App.5th 487,291 Cal.Rptr.3d 581
Parties COLONIAL VAN & STORAGE, INC., Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT OF FRESNO COUNTY, Respondent; Crystal D. Dominguez et al., Real Parties in Interest.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Horvitz & Levy, Mitchell C. Tilner, Burbank, Mark A. Kressel, Encino; Bremer Whyte Brown & O'Meara, Keith G. Bremer, Newport Beach, Karen M. Baytosh and August B. Hotchkin for Petitioner Colonial Van & Storage, Inc.

No appearance for Respondent.

Marderosian & Cohen, Michael G. Marderosian, Fresno, Heather S. Cohen ; Law Offices of Frank M. Nunes and Frank M. Nunes for Real Party In Interest Crystal D. Dominguez.

Haffner Law, Joshua H. Haffner and Graham G. Lambert for Real Parties In Interest Rachel Schindler et al.

LUI, P. J.

A young man suffering from a mental health condition suddenly fired a handgun at family members and guests inside his family home. Among the injured were his mother's coworker and a business associate, who were both involved in work-related activities with the mother and stepfather at the time. An employer has an affirmative duty to provide employees with a safe place to work. ( Lab. Code, § 6400, subd. (a) ; Seabright Ins. Co. v. US Airways, Inc. (2011) 52 Cal.4th 590, 603, 129 Cal.Rptr.3d 601, 258 P.3d 737.) Does this duty include ensuring that an off-site meeting place for coworkers and business associates like an employee's private residence is safe from third party criminal harm? We hold the answer is "No."1 In light of our holding, we grant the writ petition challenging the court's order denying the summary judgment motion in this case and direct the trial court to enter a new and different order granting summary judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
I. The Shooting

Colonial Van & Storage, Inc. (Colonial) is a moving and storage company in Fresno that services California and Nevada. Colonial recognized in its Employee Handbook that workplace violence is "a growing nationwide problem necessitating a firm, considered response by employers." As part of its workplace antiviolence policy, Colonial enumerated behaviors that may constitute workplace violence if they involved Colonial employees on and off Colonial premises. The handbook further stated that workplace violence "will not be tolerated" and offenders would be immediately removed from Colonial premises and face possible disciplinary action following an investigation.

Carol Holaday (Holaday) and her husband Jim Willcoxson2 (Willcoxson) were employed by Colonial. Holaday was a supervisor and a long-haul dispatcher. She typically worked at Colonial's Fresno office but was authorized to work at home at her discretion. Holaday often had coworkers visit her home for social and work-related reasons. Willcoxson was a Colonial sales representative. His job entailed traveling to various places and making telephone calls.

Kyle Holaday (Kyle) was unemployed and had been residing with his mother and Willcoxson for approximately two years. He was 26 years old, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder

(PTSD) for which he was receiving outpatient treatment. Kyle had a history of self-harm and misuse of firearms. He frequently left loaded guns around the home and shot birds and rodents on one occasion.

Crystal Dominguez3 (Dominguez) was a Colonial employee and worked with Holaday at the Fresno office. She was a frequent visitor to Holaday's home and considered Kyle a friend.

Rachel Schindler (Schindler) was employed by another moving company that worked with Colonial. She knew Holaday in a business capacity and had been to her home a few times. Schindler had only briefly met Kyle.

On the evening of March 24, 2017, Holaday and Willcoxson hosted a dinner in their Fresno home for Dominguez and Schindler. Schindler brought her five-month-old daughter with her. The four adults were socializing, but also networking and engaged in job-related tasks. Kyle was present at the time. After acknowledging the arriving guests, Kyle sat in the living room and looked at his cell phone.

At one point Willcoxson went into the kitchen while the three women talked in the living room. Without speaking, Kyle left the living room and returned with a handgun and began firing. He shot and killed Willcoxson and a family dog and wounded Holaday, Dominguez, and Schindler. A bullet grazed the baby's ear. Kyle fled from the home and was struck by a moving car when he ran into the street. Police arrived and arrested him.4

II. The Lawsuits

Dominguez and Schindler (collectively plaintiffs) each filed a lawsuit against Colonial and Holaday for personal injury damages. Dominguez's operative complaint alleged causes of action for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Colonial and Holaday and negligent supervision against Holaday alone. As to all causes of action, Dominguez alleged Colonial was vicariously liable for Holaday's misconduct pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior.

Schindler's separate complaint filed on behalf of herself and her baby daughter pleaded the same causes of action against Colonial and Holaday, alleging substantially the same allegations. The two lawsuits were later consolidated.

III. The Summary Judgment Motion

Colonial moved for summary judgment on plaintiffs’ direct negligence claim for lack of duty because Colonial did not own, possess, or control the home where the shooting occurred, and on all claims because the shooting was an unforeseeable event.

Plaintiffs filed opposition. As to the claims of direct negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Colonial, plaintiffs asserted there were triable issues whether Colonial owed plaintiffs a duty to protect because Colonial controlled the home where the shooting occurred; Colonial knew or should have known of the dangers Kyle posed and the corresponding risks associated with using the home as a work site. Both plaintiffs also contended there were triable issues whether Colonial was vicariously liable for Holaday's alleged negligent and intentional misconduct under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

Following a hearing, the trial court denied summary judgment finding as disputed facts: (1) the extent to which Colonial employees performed work in Holaday's home; (2) the purpose of Dominguez's presence at the home on the evening of the shooting; (3) how long Kyle had lived at the home; and (4) whether plaintiffs were friends with Kyle. The court entered its order denying the motion on July 23, 2020.

IV. The Writ Petition

On August 21, 2020, Colonial filed a petition for writ of mandate urging the Fifth District Court of Appeal to vacate the trial court's order denying the motion for summary judgment and enter a new order granting summary judgment.5 After receiving opposition from plaintiffs and a reply in support of Colonial's petition, the appellate court issued an order to show cause why the relief requested in the petition should not be granted.6

DISCUSSION
I. The Propriety of Writ Review

"[W]rit review is appropriate only when (1) ‘the remedy by appeal would be inadequate’ [citation] or (2) the writ presents a ‘significant issue of law’ or an issue of ‘widespread’ or ‘public interest.’ " ( California Dept. of Tax & Fee Administration v. Superior Court (2020) 48 Cal.App.5th 922, 929, 262 Cal.Rptr.3d 397.) Writ review is appropriate in this case because an order denying a summary judgment motion is not appealable (see Code Civ. Proc., § 904.1, subd. (a) ) and Colonial's petition presents an issue of law that is of paramount importance to public welfare during the current Covid-19 pandemic: Whether an employer has a duty to ensure that off-site work locations are safe from third party criminal conduct.7

II. Summary Judgment

"A defendant is entitled to summary judgment if it can ‘show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact.’ [Citation.] The defendant bears the initial burden of establishing that the plaintiff's cause of action has ‘no merit’ by showing that the plaintiff cannot establish ‘one or more elements of [the] cause of action.’ [Citation.] If this burden is met, the ‘burden shifts’ to the plaintiff ‘to show that a triable issue of one or more material facts exists as to the cause of action.’ " ( Issakhani v. Shadow Glen Homeowners Assn., Inc. (2021) 63 Cal.App.5th 917, 924, fn., 278 Cal.Rptr.3d 270 omitted.)

We review the denial of a motion for summary judgment de novo, and thus do not defer to the trial court's rulings or reasoning. ( Camarillo v. Vaage (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 552, 560, 130 Cal.Rptr.2d 26 ; Burgueno v. Regents of University of California (2015) 243 Cal.App.4th 1052, 1057, 197 Cal.Rptr.3d 44.)

III. Plaintiffs’ Direct Negligence Claim Against Colonial

To establish a cause of action for negligence, a plaintiff must allege facts showing a legal duty to use due care, breach of the duty, causation, and damages. ( Kesner v. Superior Court (2016) 1 Cal.5th 1132, 1158, 210 Cal.Rptr.3d 283, 384 P.3d 283.) Duty is a threshold issue, a question of law for the court, and reviewed de novo on appeal. ( Id. at p. 1142, 210 Cal.Rptr.3d 283, 384 P.3d 283.) Every person has a duty in his or her activities to exercise reasonable care for the safety of others. ( Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a).) Yet this duty "is not absolute"; a defendant does not necessarily owe every plaintiff a duty of care. ( Brown v. USA Taekwondo (2021) 11 Cal.5th 204, 215, 276 Cal.Rptr.3d 434, 483 P.3d 159.) Generally, " ‘one owes no duty to control the conduct of another, nor to warn those endangered by such conduct.’ " ( Regents of University of California v. Superior Court (2018) 4 Cal.5th 607, 619, 230 Cal.Rptr.3d 415, 413 P.3d 656 ; accord, Delgado v. Trax Bar & Grill (2005) 36 Cal.4th 224, 235, 30 Cal.Rptr.3d 145, 113 P.3d 1159 ["as a general matter, there is no duty to act to protect others from the conduct of third parties"].)

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