Court Blocks CDCR’s Early Exit From Personal Injury Case Against Peace Officer

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies
CLIENT TYPE: Public Employers
DATE: Feb 02, 2024

A public entity can be held liable for the conduct of its public employees if the public employee’s acts or omissions within the scope of employment proximately caused an injury to another.  This principle is called respondeat superior and it is codified at Government Code section 815.2 (a).  The question of whether a public employee was acting within the scope of employment is ordinarily one of fact for the jury to determine.  This case applies this principle to a peace officer.

Michael Becker was a Peace Officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).  On his way to work very early one morning, Becker thought two individuals at a gas station were “looking suspicious”.  Becker said some words were exchanged before the individuals drove away.  Becker pursued the individuals on to the freeway, drove recklessly, and brandished a firearm at the two.  Becker was driving his private car at the time.

An accident occurred at a freeway interchange.  The car Becker was pursing caught on fire.  One of the occupants of the car was able to self-extricate, however the other was incapacitated by catastrophic injuries and burns, and finally died over a year later.  The survivor and the family of the deceased brought civil tort claims against Becker, and the CDCR.  The trial court granted CDCR’s motion summary judgment, finding that Becker’s conduct did not occur within the scope of employment.

The California Court of Appeal reversed.  The Court found that the conflicts and inferences in the evidence prevented the CDCR’s summary judgment motion.  For example, Becker’s primary duties at CDCR did not include typical law enforcement functions; he supervised prisoners who used knives for culinary duties.  As another example, although Becker believed that his clothing made him recognizable as a CDCR Officer, the facts were disputed as to whether the two individuals knew Becker was wearing a uniform before the accident.  The Court denied CDCR’s motion for summary judgment because of these and other conflicting facts.

Adams v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2024 Cal.App.Lexis 11.

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