California Appellate Court Reinstates Case Against Couple Who Delayed Calling Police After A Drunk Friend Fell Over Cliff

gavel2There is an interesting ruling out of California where the Third Appellate District has reversed a dismissal of tort claims against two defendants who were sued by their former friend after he fell off a cliff while drunk. The appellate court ruled that there are triable issues in the culpability of Zachary Gudelunas and Sarah Koivumaki in bringing Jason Michael Carlsen to the cliff knowing that he was drunk and then waiting for hours before calling police after he fell off the cliff in Redding above the Sacramento River.

The bizarre case began at a party in October 2008 when Jason Michael Carlsen needed a ride home. It appears that the friend who drove him had developed car problems. Gudelunas and Koivumaki agreed to perform that service. Gudelunas and Koivumaki are classmates at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, a faith healing school. The three drove to a grocery store where Carlsen stole a fifth bottle of run and went to another party. When they arrived at the cliff and all three drank the stolen rum. Carlsen was clearly drunk. That is when Koivumaki started talking about her brother who died after he fell off a bridge and Carlsen laughed – making Kovimaki upset. It was then that Carlsen fell off the cliff. He at first was able to hold on to the cliff but then fell out of sight. Rather than call police, Gudelunas and Koivumaki searched for Carlsen, including wading into the river. They were afraid of getting into trouble and went back to Koivumaki’s apartment where she called her mother in Canada and said “this guy committed suicide; he jumped.” Hours after the fell (and thirty minutes after the call) the couple went to police.

Carlsen would later be found alive but could not remember the fall. He sued the pair for (1) assault and battery, (2) negligence, (3) willful misconduct, and (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress. However a lower court threw out the lawsuit. On its face, one can understand the trial court skepticism. Carlsen was clearly acting in a negligent fashion and his conduct could be viewed as cutting off proximate causation and creating determinative defenses under comparative negligence theories. However, the appellate panel ruled that some of the case was triable. The fact that the pair took a drunken friend to the cliff and then waited so long to call police were viable claims for a jury.

The assault and battery claim is obviously meritless on these facts. The negligence claim is interesting since in the United Stats there is no “duty to rescue” or come to the aid of another person. However that is only when you have not breached a duty that caused or contributed to the danger or the accident. The panel concluded:

From these facts and the supporting evidence, a jury reasonably could infer that Sarah breached her duty of ordinary care owed to Jason, and as a direct and proximate result of her breach, Jason fell from the cliff. While “[t]here may be no duty to take care of a man who is ill or intoxicated, and unable to look out for himself; … it is another thing entirely to eject him into the danger of a street or railroad yard; and if he is injured there will be liability.” (Prosser & Keeton, Torts, supra, § 56, p. 378, fn. omitted.) Although Sarah did not drive the car that transported Jason to the cliff, the evidence supports a finding that she played an active role in placing Jason in a position of peril. She and Zach were close friends and were together at the party. She was present when De la Cruz told Jason that she and Zach had agreed to drive him home. She knew Jason was highly intoxicated. She and Zach had previously planned to go to the Bluffs to watch the sunrise, and Zach had brought a large blanket for that purpose. She and Zach walked with Jason from the roadside to the Bluffs and sat on a blanket with him drinking the rum he had stolen. There is no indication Sarah objected to any of the actions that led to Jason being on the cliff side while in a highly intoxicated state; to the contrary, the evidence suggests she and Zach had planned to go to the Bluffs to watch the sunrise. Sarah was not a passive participant; the only thing she did not do was drive the car. Should a jury conclude that Sarah was responsible for Jason’s fall, she had a legal duty to take affirmative action to assist or protect him after he fell. (See Williams, supra, 34 Cal.3d at p. 23.) A jury reasonably could conclude that Sarah breached that duty by waiting several hours before reporting his fall to police.

Jason’s facts, if proved, also support a finding of a special relationship between Sarah and Jason. A special relationship arises from the facts of the case, from the circumstances which create a peril. A jury reasonably could find that Jason, who was highly intoxicated, was in a particularly vulnerable state and dependent upon defendants for getting him home safely. (See Rotolo, supra, 151 Cal.App.4th at p. 325.) Should a jury conclude there was a special relationship, Sarah had a legal duty to take affirmative action to assist or protect Jason after he fell. (See Williams, supra, 34 Cal.3d at p. 23.)

Both the rulings in favor of Gudelunas and Koivumaki were reversed and the case sent back. In the end, it would be interesting to see how a jury assigned negligence under comparative negligence analysis. It would seem that Carlson has much of the blame though a jury may find that the failure to call police trumps the stealing of the booze and the falling off the cliff.

The case is Carlsen v. Koivumaki, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 592.

Source: Courthouse News

26 thoughts on “California Appellate Court Reinstates Case Against Couple Who Delayed Calling Police After A Drunk Friend Fell Over Cliff”

  1. It will probably be anyone’s guess as to how the jury will decide this case, if it isn’t settled first.

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