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A Trinity County deputy sheriff phoned citizens James and Norma Gund – who do not work for the County – and asked them to go check on a neighbor who had called 911 for help likely related to inclement weather.

The Gunds unwittingly walked into a murder scene and were savagely attacked by the man who apparently had just murdered the neighbor and her boyfriend. The assailant fled.

The Gunds sued the County of Trinity and the deputy – Corporal Ron Whitman – for negligence and misrepresentation, alleging defendants created a special relationship with the Gunds and owed them a duty of care, which defendants breached by representing that the 911 call was likely weather-related and “probably no big deal” and by withholding information known to defendants suggesting a crime in progress – i.e., that the caller had whispered “help me,” that the California Highway Patrol dispatcher refrained from calling back when the call was disconnected out of concern the caller was in danger, and that no one answered when the county dispatcher called.

Trinity County filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that Grund’s exclusive remedy was workers’ compensation. The trial court adopted the defense theory and entered summary judgment and the Gunds appealed. In 2018, the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment in a published case.

The California Supreme Court ordered review on the court’s own motion, to decide the scope of workers’ compensation coverage available to the plaintiffs in this situation, as the availability of such coverage would constrain them in seeking other redress for their injuries.

This month the California Supreme Court published its review of the case, and agreed with both the trial court and the Court of Appeal in the case of Gund v County of Trinity.

“We entrust to police officers the enormous responsibility of ensuring public safety with integrity and appropriate restraint, a mission they sometimes pursue by requesting help from the very public they’re sworn to protect.”

When members of the public engage in ‘active law enforcement service’ at a peace officer’s request, California law treats those members of the public as employees eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. (Lab. Code, § 3366, subd. (a).)”

“While this allows such individuals to receive compensation for their injuries without regard to fault, it comes with a catch: Workers’ compensation then becomes an individual’s exclusive remedy for those injuries under state law.