Ruling Heightens Governments' Risk of Damage Suits

Times Staff Writer

In a ruling that could expose local governments to increased civil damage suits, the state Court of Appeal Thursday reinstated a personal injury suit against Los Angeles County by a woman whose throat was slit by her husband when she attended her divorce hearing in Van Nuys Superior Court.

Superior Court Judge Joel Rudof had dismissed the case at the county's request on grounds that the state Government Code exempts public entities from civil liability for failing to provide police protection.

But 2nd District appellate Justices Armand Arabian and Elwood Lui, with Justice George Danielson dissenting, said the case should go to trial.

"This immunity is meant to protect the budgetary and political decisions involved in hiring and deploying a police force. Therefore, (Los Angeles) county, a public entity, and its agents may not be held in this case for any failure to provide adequate police protection," wrote Arabian for the majority. "(This) complaint, however, alleges not simply inadequate police protection, but that bailiffs specifically employed to provide security in the courthouse left their posts and failed to tell supervisors of their absences."

The civil suit was filed by Blanca Winans, 26, after she was slashed and stabbed by her husband, Edward Winans Jr., 43, in the courthouse hallway on May 20, 1982, when she refused his repeated pleas for reconciliation. The husband pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

The negligence suit claimed that no bailiff was on duty in the courtroom adjacent to the hallway, in violation of the Bailiff's Manual for Superior Court, the county's Court Security Plan and the Los Angeles County Code.

"To preserve the hall of justice as a hallowed place," Arabian wrote, "protection from violence should be available to any member of the public from the possessor of the premises."

The county should be no less responsible, the justices concluded, than a landowner who opens his premises to the public for business and is held liable for physical harm to visitors by third parties.

"Among the commonly recognized special relationships are that between a common carrier and its passengers, that between an innkeeper and his or her guests," the opinion stated, "and that between a possessor of land and members of the public who enter in response to the land owner's invitation."

"Normally," Arabian wrote, "liability will be imposed in circumstances where the possessor has reasonable cause to anticipate the misconduct of third persons."

Danielson dissented, endorsing the county's immunity from liability under the Government Code. The potential for violence is present in many public buildings where large crowds are freely admitted, he said, and providing full police protection for such places would be "an enormous burden to already overloaded governmental budgets."

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