Duty To Provide Safe Workplace Did Not Apply At Off-Site, Private Residence

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Private Education Matters, Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education, Public Education, Public Employers
DATE: Apr 01, 2022

In March 2017, three employees of Colonial Van & Storage (Colonial) and a business associate gathered at the private family residence of two married Colonial employees (Carol Holladay and Jim Willcoxson). While in the home, Holladay and Willcoxon’s son, a war veteran with PTSD, opened fire with a handgun, killing Wilcoxson and injuring the remaining attendees. The injured employee (Dominguez) and injured business associate (Schindler) filed lawsuits against Colonial for personal injury damages via a negligence cause of action.

Colonial moved for summary judgment against the negligence claim because Colonial did not own, possess, or control the home where the shooting occurred. The trial court denied this summary judgment motion. Colonial appealed, and the California Court of Appeal overturned the trial court and granted summary judgment.  The trial court held that Colonial had no duty to ensure that an off-site meeting place for coworkers and business associates — like an employee’s private residence — is safe from third-party criminal conduct.

In a typical negligence claim, a person must prove that: they were owed a duty of care; the person they are suing breached that duty of care; and the breach directly and proximately caused harm to the person suing. This case focused on whether the employer, Colonial, owed a duty of care to the injured people.

California Labor Code Section 6400 gives an employer an affirmative duty to provide employees with a safe place to work. On the other hand, the Court of Appeal noted that a duty of care is not absolute.  Generally, a person does not owe a duty to: protect others from the conduct of a third person; or warn those who may be endangered by third-party conduct. It is these competing principles that the Court of Appeal needed to balance and harmonize to decide this case.

The injured employee, Dominguez, and the injured business associate, Schindler, claimed that Colonial owed them a duty of care because Colonial controlled the home where the shooting occurred. Generally, a person’s or entity’s control over property is sufficient to create that duty of care. However, the Court of Appeal held that Colonial did not control the home in this case.

In reaching that determination, the Court of Appeal used a common legal definition of “control”, which is the power to prevent, remedy, or guard against a dangerous condition. Absent ownership or possession, an entity can control property in the legal sense if it takes an overt action directed at the property to modify or improve it, beyond simple upkeep. Examples of overt actions include: building a fence around the property; or erecting a neon sign to illuminate it.  The Court of Appeal found no evidence that Colonial had ever taken an overt action to modify or improve the property.  Thus, Colonial did not control the property and could not possibly owe Dominguez and Schindler a duty of care.

Dominguez and Schindler also argued that because Holladay had often teleworked from the home on behalf of Colonial, Colonial controlled the home. The Court of Appeal disagreed, holding that deriving a commercial benefit from the use of a home does not create a duty to protect. In coming to this conclusion, the Court stated that if they sided with Dominguez and Schindler, “employers would have the onerous task of ensuring … employees maintained the safety of their private residences and the mental health of their fellow residents and invitees.”

The Court also found that, because Colonial had no knowledge of the son’s violent past and mental disorder, the son’s eventual attack was entirely unforeseeable. So, not only did Colonial not owe Dominguez and Schindler a duty of care, but the attack was also unforeseeable, which further rendered the claim untenable.

In sum, this case makes it clear that so long as an employer does not own, possess, or take overt action directed towards the property to modify or improve it, an employer does not control such property, and therefore does not owe a duty of care to those present on the property. Further, if an employer has no knowledge of anything that would hint at a future liability or dangerous situation, then the harm is not foreseeable and cannot support a negligence claim.

Colonial Van & Storage v. Superior Court (Dominguez),  2022 WL 819115.

Note:  This case involved a private employer.  The Governmental Tort Claims Act governs the liability of public agencies.  To the extent that no specific governmental immunity applied, the principles, in this case, would also apply to public employers. 

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