California Supreme Court clarifies the special relationship requirement in abuse cases
On April 1, 2021, the California Supreme Court entered an opinion in Brown v. USA Taekwondo, which involves sexual abuse-related claims against USA Taekwondo (“USAT”) and the United States Olympic Committee (“USOC”).
Lowers Courts’ Decisions
From 2007 to 2013, then-minors Yazmin Brown, Kendra Gatt and Brianna Bordon (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) were sexually abused by their coach, Marc Gitelman, a certified USAT coach. The abuse was alleged to have occurred at USAT- and USOC-sponsored events. In 2015, Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Gitelman, USAT and USOC in California state court. Plaintiffs alleged that they were sexually abused by Gitelman and that USOC and USAT were negligent in failing to protect them from Gitelman’s abuse. It was alleged that the sexual abuse of young athletes by their coaches has been an ongoing problem dating back to the 1980’s. Although USOC mandated that national governing bodies adopt a Safe Sport Program to protect athletes from such abuse, Plaintiffs alleged that USAT failed to implement the Safe Sport Program in a timely fashion. As a result, USAT was placed on probation by USOC. Plaintiffs further alleged that once USAT was made aware of Gitelman’s conduct, it took insufficient steps to protect the victims. While USAT temporarily suspended Gitelman, he was permitted to continue coaching at USAT competitions for several months before being placed on its list of banned coaches.
USOC and USAT both demurred to the complaint arguing that Plaintiffs had not adequately alleged they had an affirmative duty to take action to protect them from Gitelman’s abuse. The trial court sustained both demurrers without leave to amend and entered judgments of dismissal. Plaintiffs appealed and the Court of Appel reversed the judgment dismissing USAT but affirmed as to USOC. Applying a two-part test, the Court of Appeal concluded that Plaintiffs had adequately alleged that USAT owed a duty to protect them from Gitelman. However, it held that that USOC had no special relationship with either Plaintiffs or Gitelman and, therefore, had no duty to protect the plaintiff’s from Gitelman’s abuse.
Supreme Court’s Review
The Supreme Court granted review to clarify the applicable framework for determining whether a defendant has a duty to protect a plaintiff from a third party. It concluded that the Court of Appeals appropriately applied the two-part framework and affirmed. California imposes a general duty of care on a defendant when the defendant creates a risk of harm to the plaintiff or when the defendant is responsible for making plaintiff’s position worse. The “no-duty-to-protect” rule is not absolute and is subject to a number of exceptions. For example, a person may have an affirmative duty to protect a victim from harm if that person has a special relationship with either the victim or person that created the harm. A special relationship between the defendant and victim is one that “gives the victim a right to expect” protection from the defendants, while a special relationship between the defendant and dangerous third party is one that “entails an ability to control [the third party’s] conduct.” California courts uniformly hold that a defendant has no legal duty to plaintiff when the defendant has neither acted to increase the risk of injury to the plaintiff nor sits in a relation to the parties that creates an affirmative duty to protect the plaintiff from harm.
Plaintiffs argued that even if the defendant lacks a special relationship with the parties, an independent duty may arise after considering the Rowland factors. Plaintiffs urged that the court should adopt a more flexible and holistic approach to duty (applying only Rowland), particularly in cases involving the sexual abuse of minors. The Supreme Court disagreed. The court explained that only after determining that a special relationship exists, the Rowland factors are used by courts determine whether relevant policy considerations counsel limiting that duty. The Rowland factors involve the balancing of a number of considerations including: (1) the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff; (2) the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury; (3) the closeness of the connection between the defendants’ conduct and the injury suffered; (4) the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered; (5) the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct; (6) the policy of preventing future harm; (7) the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing the duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach; and (8) the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.
The California Supreme Court acknowledged that when a special relationship exists between the defendant and a minor, the obligation to provide protection may involve a duty to protect the minor from third party abuse. However, absent a special relationship, the Rowland factors do not serve as an alternative basis for imposing a duty to protect. The two tests are separate. Thus, the application of the special relationship test does not obviate the need for the Rowland factors, and vice versa.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision to dismiss USOC based on the fact that USOC had no special relationship with plaintiffs. It also affirmed as to USAT. It noted that following a determination that USAT had a special relationship with plaintiffs, the Court of Appeals appropriately applied the Rowland factors and concluded that there was no reason to limit USAT’s duty to plaintiff.
The Supreme Court’s decision underscores that not all defendants named in an abuse case are necessarily on the same footing when it comes to their duties to the injured claimants. This point aids in evaluating relative culpability and can drive resolution strategy, both at the liability level and in coverage actions.