Key Decisions

August 2013 – The County Could Be Vicariously Liable

(filed under: Key Decisions Archive | August 16, 2013)

The County Could Be Vicariously Liable

Rodriguez v. County of Los Angeles
(Cal. Ct. of App., 2d Dist.), filed July 2, 2013, published July 2, 2013

Freddy Rodriguez was stopped by police for talking on a cell phone while driving. When asked, he presented his driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. Although these identified him as Freddy Pantoja Rodriguez, the police arrested him based on a 20-year-old no-bail bench warrant issued by the Orange County Superior Court for the arrest of “RODRIGUEZ Alfredo Ramos” for a parole violation.

When he was booked, Rodriguez told the booking officer his true name, and asked that his fingerprints and photograph be taken. His requests were initially ignored, and he was told there was an outstanding warrant for him issued by the superior court in Inglewood for his nonappearance on a citation for a dog leash violation.

Rodriguez was finally fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a cell at the Los Angeles Police Department. Because it was a Friday, Rodriguez remained in custody at the department until Monday, when he was then taken to court in Inglewood. There, he pled guilty to the dog leash infraction and was sentenced to time served.

Despite this sentence, Rodriguez was not released. Instead, he was taken to the Los Angeles County jail, where he was called by the name of Ramos.

Rodriguez was held for a total of 11 days before the Orange County Superior Court concluded that Rodriguez was not Ramos.

Rodriguez sued both Los Angeles and Orange counties for false imprisonment. However, the trial court sustained Los Angeles County’s demurrer without leave to amend and granted Orange County’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. The trial court found that, under Venegas v. County of Los Angeles, 32 Cal.4th 820 (2004), the California sheriffs were acting as state officers as a matter of law in determining to hold inmates and that, as a result, the county defendants were immune from liability for false imprisonment by their sheriffs under Government Code Section 815.2(b).

The Court of Appeal reversed.  It concluded that because Venegas dealt with federal claims under the Civil Rights Act while the claims before it were state law claims, the case ofSullivan v. County of Los Angeles, 12 Cal.3d 710 (1974), applied rather than Venegas

Sullivan held that a county can be held vicariously liable for false imprisonment by county employees.