Zelig v. County of Los Angeles, S081791.

Citation119 Cal.Rptr.2d 709,27 Cal.4th 1112,45 P.3d 1171
Decision Date20 May 2002
Docket NumberNo. S081791.,S081791.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
PartiesDana E. ZELIG, a Minor, etc., et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants and Respondents.

119 Cal.Rptr.2d 709
27 Cal.4th 1112
45 P.3d 1171

Dana E. ZELIG, a Minor, etc., et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants and Respondents

No. S081791.

Supreme Court of California.

May 20, 2002.

119 Cal.Rptr.2d 713
Talcott, Lightfoot, Vandevelde & Sadowsky, Talcott, Lightfoot, Vandevelde, Sadowsky, Medvene & Levine, John D. Vandevelde, Melissa N. Widdifield, Stephen B. Sadowsky, Los Angeles, and Edward M. Medvene for Plaintiffs and Appellants

California Women's Law Center, Susan Berke Fogel, Los Angeles, Marci Fukuroda; Kelley & Kelley and Pamela Kelley for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Break the Cycle, the California National Organization for Women, California Women's Law Center, Coalition of Women from Asia and the Middle East, National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund, Shelter Against Violent Environments and Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles as Amici Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Douglas Devries, Sacramento; Bruce Broillet; Roland Wrinkle, Woodland Hills; Wayne McLean; Thor Emblem, Escondido; Rick Simons; Ian Herzog, Santa Monica; James Sturdevant, San Francisco; Harvey R. Levine, Fremont; Leonard Sacks, Granada Hills; Robert Steinbert; Mary E. Alexander, Menlo Park; Joseph Harbison III, Sacramento; David Casey, Jr., San Diego; Thomas J. Stolpman, Long Beach; Lee-Ann Tratten; Lawrence Drivon; William D. Turley, San Diego; Steven J. Kleifield; David Rosen; Moses Lebovits, Los Angeles; Greene, Broillet, Taylor, Wheeler & Panish, Christine D. Spagnoli; Esner & Chang and Stuart Esner, Los Angeles, for Consumer Attorneys of California as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

De Witt W. Clinton and Lloyd W. Pellman, County Counsel, S. Robert Ambrose and Louis V. Aguilar, Assistant County Counsel, Dennis M. Gonzalez, Principal Deputy County Counsel; Manning, Marder & Wolfe, Manning & Marder Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez and Steven J. Renick for Defendants and Respondents.

Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Margaret Rodda, Assistant Attorney General, Darryl Doke and Gordon B. Burns, Deputy Attorneys General, for State of California

119 Cal.Rptr.2d 714
as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents

Pollak, Vida & Fisher, Girard Fisher and Daniel P. Barer, Los Angeles, for 115 California Cities and California State Association of Counties as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents.

Fred J. Hiestand for the Civil Justice Association of California as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents.


In this case we determine whether plaintiffs—the minor children of a woman who was shot to death by her former husband in a Los Angeles courthouse—may state causes of action for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, wrongful death, and violation of civil rights against defendants County of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department for the failure of those entities to provide adequate security against third party violence inside the courthouse. We conclude that the trial court properly sustained defendants' demurrer to the state law claims and to the cause of action that is based upon 42 United States Code section 1983 for the claimed violation of the decedent's civil rights. We therefore reverse the contrary judgment of the Court of Appeal.


Plaintiffs, bringing this action through their guardians, are the minor children of Eileen and Harry Zelig. Plaintiffs' first amended complaint named Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department, Harry Zelig, and 10 unnamed persons as defendants.

On September 1, 1995, Eileen was murdered by her former husband, Harry, inside what was then called the Central Civil Courthouse in Los Angeles.1 Lisa Zelig, then six years of age, witnessed her father shoot her mother in the chest at pointblank range. Eileen and Harry were in the courthouse for the purpose of attending a family court hearing regarding spousal and child support.

In their complaint, plaintiffs alleged that the following circumstances preceded this tragedy. Eileen and Harry separated in October 1993. Harry failed to comply with orders of the family court relating to spousal and child support, and Eileen sought redress in the family court on various occasions. Harry became verbally abusive toward Eileen. On at least three occasions prior to September 1, 1995, Eileen informed the bailiff in one department of the family court that she feared Harry and believed he might attack or kill her in the courthouse. On at least one prior occasion, the bailiff searched Harry for weapons before permitting him to enter the courtroom. Eileen also previously had provided the bailiff and a judge in the family court with copies of letters and telephone messages in which Harry threatened to kill her. Eileen had secured restraining orders that prohibited Harry from possessing or carrying any firearms, that ordered him to turn over his firearms to his lawyer, and that prohibited Harry from being "within 100 yards of any firearm" while in the presence of Eileen and the children.

On September 1, 1995, Eileen appeared in department 27, one of the courtrooms hearing family law matters at the Central Civil Courthouse. Eileen and Harry were directed to proceed downstairs to department 1A. As she reached the second floor

119 Cal.Rptr.2d 715
of the building, Harry retrieved a loaded .38-caliber revolver that had been concealed in his clothing and shot Eileen in the chest at point-blank range. Their daughter Lisa witnessed the shooting. Eileen died soon thereafter

As noted, plaintiffs brought an action against the county, the sheriffs department, Harry, and 10 unnamed persons designated as Does I to X. With respect to the Doe defendants, plaintiffs alleged that "Does I through V had the power and authority to make decisions regarding the expenditure of funds by defendants County and Sheriffs Department. Defendants Does I through V are named ... in their individual and official capacities." It was further alleged that "Does VI through X [in their individual and official capacities] acted in concert with defendants County and Sheriffs Department." It was alleged that these 10 unnamed persons acted "under color, authority, and pretense of the statutes, ordinances, regulations, customs and usage of the State of California, Los Angeles County, and under authority of their offices," and that their acts were "done ... in the execution and implementation of the official policy, practice and custom of defendants County and Sheriffs Department." Finally, it was alleged that "each of the Doe defendants was the agent or employee of defendants County or Sheriffs Department, and ... acted within the scope of such agency or employment."

Plaintiffs further alleged that the county, the sheriffs department, and the Doe defendants "knew, or should have known, that defendant [Harry] Zelig had repeatedly threatened acts of violence against [Eileen Zelig] during the course of their divorce and child custody proceedings," and that they "knew and/or should have known that the inherently contentious and acrimonious nature of family law matters in general frequently resulted in foreseeable volatile and often violent situations. Indeed, high ranking County officials, including County Board of Supervisors and Superior Court Judges were specifically aware of the likelihood that violence, including shootings, would occur in the Courthouse." In addition, plaintiffs alleged that defendants "knew or should have known that criminal trials are frequently held in the Hill Street Courthouse and that the presence of the defendants and witnesses involved in those trials, who are not searched and do not have to pass through metal detectors, create[s] a potentially dangerous and volatile situation."

Plaintiffs alleged that defendants had a general duty to protect litigants from "such dangerous conditions, as well as a specific duty to protect [Eileen] because of the special relationship" between her and the county and the sheriffs department. As a basis for this special relationship, plaintiffs alleged "1) Eileen was required to be in the Courthouse in order to litigate her spousal and child support claims in the Family Courts, 2) these defendants impliedly agreed to provide a reasonably safe and secure forum for Eileen and other litigants who paid fees to defendants, 3) these defendants made law-abiding persons with business in the Courthouse dependent on defendants for security by ordering that persons not introduce their own weapons into the Courthouse, and 4) these defendants made law-abiding citizens particularly vulnerable while in the Courthouse by depriving them of the ability to have weapons to protect themselves in the Courthouse." They also alleged that the county and the sheriffs department "assumed the duty of providing the sole legal forum in which Eileen could litigate her claims and Eileen was, in turn, dependent upon these defendants to take responsibility for the dangerous conditions which existed within the Courthouse."

119 Cal.Rptr.2d 716
Plaintiffs alleged that defendants violated their duty to protect Eileen, because they countenanced the dangerous condition of the courthouse "to the extent they allowed weapons into the courthouse, knowing that litigants, especially in the Family Courts, could be hostile and prone to violence, and once knowing the likelihood of danger to persons in the Courthouse, failed to take steps to prevent the danger." Defendants, it was claimed, "in contravention of their aforementioned duty and despite their creating and awareness of a dangerous condition ... failed or chose not to implement reasonably adequate barriers or other safety measures in the Hill Street Courthouse, including, but not limited to, posting adequate disclaimers and warnings, installing metal detectors or inspecting persons entering the Hill Street Courthouse for...

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