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Beltran-Serrano v. City of Tacoma

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

June 13, 2019

CESAR BELTRAN-SERRANO, an incapacitated person, individually, and BIANCA BELTRAN as guardian ad litem of the person and estate of CESAR BELTRAN-SERRANO, Petitioners,
v.
CITY OF TACOMA, a political subdivision of the State of Washington, Respondent.

          STEPHENS, J.

         Cesar Beltran-Serrano, a mentally ill homeless man, was shot multiple times by Tacoma Police Officer Michel Volk, after a simple social contact escalated to the use of deadly force. Beltran-Serrano survived the shooting and, through a guardian ad litem, brought this action for negligence and assault and battery against the city of Tacoma (City). The Pierce County Superior Court dismissed the negligence claims on summary judgment, agreeing with the City that the sole avenue for any recovery must be an intentional tort claim for assault and battery.

         We reverse. The fact that Officer Volk's conduct may constitute assault and battery does not preclude a negligence claim premised on her alleged failure to use ordinary care to avoid unreasonably escalating the encounter to the use of deadly force. Under well-established negligence principles, police officers owe a duty of reasonable care in situations such as this. Beltran-Serrano has presented evidence to allow a jury to find that the City failed to follow accepted practices in Officer Volk's interactions with him leading up to the shooting and that this negligence resulted in his injuries.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         Beltran-Serrano suffers from mental illness and has limited English language proficiency. On June 29, 2013, he was homeless when Officer Volk noticed him standing on the corner of East 28th Street, an area of Tacoma where the police had received multiple complaints about panhandlers. Officer Volk parked her patrol vehicle near Beltran-Serrano and approached him with the goal of educating him about the City's panhandling laws. She did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe he was committing a crime.

         As Officer Volk approached Beltran-Serrano, he laid down on his stomach and started digging in a hole. Officer Volk greeted Beltran-Serrano, but he looked up at her blankly and kept digging in the hole. Noticing that the hole contained mainly garbage, Officer Volk observed Beltran-Serrano pull out an old soda container, take a drink, and throw it back in the hole. When Officer Volk asked Beltran-Serrano if he understood English, he shook his head no. Officer Volk then radioed for a Spanish-speaking officer. Officer Jake Gutierrez, who spoke Spanish, was within one and a half to five minutes away.

         Instead of waiting for Officer Gutierrez to arrive, Officer Volk attempted to engage Beltran-Serrano in conversation; he was nonresponsive. She attempted to get Beltran-Serrano to produce identification, gesturing to indicate she wanted to see an ID card. Beltran-Serrano began to pat his pockets as if to look for identification, but then he bent down and reached back into the hole. When Officer Volk moved closer to Beltran-Serrano and continued to address him in English, he became scared and started to run away. Officer Volk shot him in the back with a stun gun as he ran across the street. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 400-01. The stun gun did not have the desired effect, and Beltran-Serrano continued to run away. Id. Officer Volk then pulled out her duty weapon and fired multiple shots until Beltran-Serrano fell to the ground. CP at 401. The total time between when Officer Volk called for a Spanish-speaking officer and the shooting was 37 seconds. CP at 396.[2]

         In resisting summary judgment, Beltran-Serrano offered declaration testimony from multiple witnesses who stated that they did not see Beltran-Serrano assault Officer Volk or brandish any weapon and that there was no instance of struggle or altercation on the street corner. Witnesses expressed concern as to why Beltran-Serrano was shot because he did not appear to be acting aggressively or making threatening motions. CP at 415-16, 432-33. A shooting scene reconstruction led a ballistics expert to conclude that "[n]one of the fired bullet paths to Beltran-Serrano support him 'swinging' or otherwise moving his arms at the time of receiving the gunshots." CP at 459.

         Through a guardian ad litem, Beltran-Serrano brought this action against the City. In addition to a claim for assault and battery, his complaint alleged that Officer Volk improperly, unreasonably, and unnecessarily escalated the situation, and that the City failed to properly train and supervise officers to deal with the mentally ill and to exercise appropriate force. CP at 77. The City filed a motion for partial summary judgment, arguing it owed no duty of reasonable care to Beltran-Serrano. Specifically, the City asserted that (1) a negligence claim could not be based on an intentional tort, (2) the public duty doctrine barred any negligence claim, and (3) a negligent training and supervision claim was unavailable because Officer Volk was acting within the scope of her employment. CP at 240-54. The Pierce County Superior Court granted the City's motion to dismiss the negligence claims and entered an order certifying for interlocutory review the issue of "whether a police officer owes a duty of reasonable care to act reasonably when using deadly force." CP at 698-99, 757.[3] Beltran-Serrano then filed a motion for direct discretionary review in this court, which our commissioner granted pursuant to RAP 4.2(a)(4).[4]

         ANALYSIS

         Claims of negligent law enforcement are not novel. Washington courts have long recognized the potential for tort liability based on the negligent performance of law enforcement activities. See, e.g., Washburn v. City of Federal Way, 178 Wn.2d 732, 310 P.3d 1275 (2013) (negligent service of a protective order); Chambers-Castanes v. King County, 100 Wn.2d 275, 669 P.2d 451 (1983) (negligent failure to respond with police assistance in a timely manner); Mason v. Bitton, 85 Wn.2d 321, 534 P.2d 1360 (1975) (negligent police vehicle chase); Garnett v. City of Bellevue, 59 Wn.App. 281, 796 P.2d 782 (1990) (negligent infliction of emotional distress for officers' harsh and offensive language in responding to a call that plaintiffs were loitering). Indeed, the City readily acknowledges that such liability is consistent with the broad waiver of sovereign immunity for municipalities under RCW 4.96.010. Br. of Resp't at 10.

         The question in this case is whether a claim of negligence can be based on Officer Volk's shooting of Beltran-Serrano when it is clear the shooting was intentional, i.e., volitional. The City insists that "[t]here is no such thing as the negligent commission of an intentional tort." Id. at 18. The City further argues that the public duty doctrine precludes liability because the statutory duty "to enforce the laws and keep the peace ... is imposed solely on government and owed to the public at large." Id. at 36. We believe the City misunderstands both the nature of Beltran- Serrano's negligence claim and the nature of its law enforcement duty.

         A. An Intentional Tort Claim Does Not Foreclose a Negligence Claim Premised on the Failure To Use Reasonable Care To Avoid the Use of Force

         In arguing that Beltran-Serrano seeks to allege negligence in the commission of an intentional tort, the City fails to appreciate the nature of Beltran-Serrano's claim. The core of his negligence claim is that Officer Volk unreasonably failed to follow police practices calculated to avoid the use of deadly force. CP at 77-78. Beltran-Serrano focuses on Officer Volk's negligence leading up to the shooting, including her failure to respond appropriately to clear signs of mental illness or impairment, her decision to continue to engage with Beltran-Serrano in English, and her decision to prevent him from walking away. The negligence allegations also identify Officer Volk's lack of adequate training and her failure to recognize the ineffectiveness of using a stun gun against a mentally ill individual.[5] While these negligence claims relate to events that culminated in Officer Volk intentionally shooting Beltran- Serrano, they do not assert a "negligent intentional shooting." Instead, they require consideration of the totality of the circumstances involved in the encounter between Officer Volk and Beltran-Serrano, and identify potential negligence in the series of actions leading up to the decision to shoot.

         The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has considered cases similar to this one and has explained the distinction between negligence and intentional tort claims arising from police use of force. District of Columbia v. Chinn, 839 A.2d 701, 710 (D.C. 2003). The court observed, '"[W]here there is sufficient evidence to submit to a jury the question of assault and battery, there may be, on the facts of a particular case, sufficient evidence to submit the question of negligence as well.'" Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Holder v. District of Columbia, 700 A.2d 738, 742 (D.C. 1997)). Cases allowing for both claims present a set of common characteristics:

Each involves the use of deadly force. Each invokes a police regulation establishing a standard of care with respect thereto that is arguably distinct from the excessive force standard. Each involves alternate scenarios in at least one of which a distinct act of negligence, a misperception of fact, may have played a part in the decision to fire. Each involves a negligent act that precedes the application of the relevant force of resort to firearms, i.e., prior to the pulling of the trigger.

Id. at 710-11. These characteristics underscore how ordinary negligence principles apply in situations that involve both a claim of battery or unprivileged use of force and the duty to act reasonably in carrying out law enforcement functions. The series of actions culminating in the use of deadly force may be analyzed in its constituent parts or, alternatively, as involving either negligent or intentional conduct. Id.; see also Hayes v. County of San Diego, 57 Cal.4th 622, 626, 305 P.3d 252, 160 Cal.Rptr.3d 684 (2013) (recognizing negligence claim may be asserted for police use of deadly force "if the tactical conduct and decisions leading up to the use of deadly force show, as part of the totality of circumstances, that the use of deadly force was unreasonable").[6]

         To understand how negligent acts leading up to the ultimate use of force may be delineated from the use of force itself, one need consider only a variation on the facts of this case. A person in Beltran-Serrano's situation might just as readily be injured, not by an officer shooting, but perhaps by running into a car as he attempts to flee from the officer in panic. The same acts of negligence remain under either scenario, but we would not describe the latter scenario as involving an intentional tort. By focusing on the alleged acts of negligence during the totality of Officer Volk's encounter with Beltran-Serrano, we avoid mischaracterizing this case as involving "nothing but" an intentional tort.

         Our analysis also accords with the practice in Washington of allowing claims to be pursued under alternative, even inconsistent, theories of recovery. CR 8(e)(2) (specifying that a party may plead "as many separate claims or defenses as the party has regardless of consistency"). Here, the fact that Beltran-Serrano may have a valid intentional tort claim for excessive force has no bearing on the viability of his negligence claim for violation of the duty to act reasonably. A jury could find one claim or the other (or neither claim) to be supported. The City certainly has not conceded that Beltran-Serrano has an assault and battery claim as opposed to a negligence claim. All claims remain for trial.

         The City misreads Boyles v. City of Kennewick, 62 Wn.App. 174, 813 P.2d 178 (1991), as precluding overlapping claims of negligence and assault and battery under Washington law. See Br. of Resp't at 9, 22; Resp. to Mot. for Discr. Review at 12. Boyles merely explains that a police officer may be an intentional tortfeasor and "is liable as such/or assault and battery if unnecessary violence or excessive force is used in accomplishing the arrest." Boyles, 62 Wn.App. at 176 (citing 6A C.J.S. Assault & Battery § 27 (1975)). This statement alone, however, does not support the City's argument because it does not foreclose a separate claim premised on negligence. The authority cited in Boyles for the above statement is a Corpus Juris Secundum entry describing claims for assault and battery. Not only does Boyles fail to limit actions against law enforcement to intentional torts, it specifically states that a claim for negligence against a police officer remains possible:

As Ms. Boyles points out, there are no Washington cases mandating a claim of assault and battery for all injuries inflicted during or after an arrest. While a claim for negligence against a police officer is possible, it is not raised by the factual allegations of the complaint in this case and, therefore, does not relate back to the original pleadings; additional facts would be necessary to support it.

Id. at 178 (emphasis added). Here, Beltran-Serrano's amended complaint asserted a valid claim of negligence and alleged facts necessary to support it. CP at 73-79. Consistent with Washington case law and CR 8(e)(2), Beltran-Serrano is allowed to pursue both an intentional tort and a negligence action.

         The City further argues that allowing a negligence action based on police use of force would "circumvent both the defense of self-defense and the standard of objective reasonableness applicable to an excessive force claim." Br. of Resp't at 23. We disagree. The statute the City relies on, RCW 9A. 16.040, governs "[j justifiable homicide or use of deadly force by public officer, peace officer, [or] person aiding." (Boldface omitted.) This statute defines when police officers are justified in using deadly force. See id. Regardless of whether Beltran-Serrano's claims sound in negligence or assault and battery, the statute allows Officer Volk to argue to the jury that her actions were privileged under the good faith standard of the statute that requires consideration of "all the facts, circumstances, and information known to the officer at the time." RCW 9A. 16.040(4). This statutory standard fully accords with Beltran-Serrano's view that the facts of this case must be evaluated under the totality of the circumstances, including Officer Volk's preshooting conduct. Br. of Appellants at 27-28.

         We hold that Beltran-Serrano's intentional tort and negligence claims may coexist under the facts of this case. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the allegations support a claim for negligence that does not amount to a "negligent intentional shooting." Moreover, all facts remain to be determined at trial, and negligence and intentional tort claims may be pleaded in the ...


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