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Government Code 821.6 Immunity for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

A recent case deals with a sheriff’s deputy’s immunity from a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress.  In the recent case of Leon v. County of Riverside (2021) ___Cal.App.5th___ [2021 Cal. App. LEXIS 446, at *1-3], the plaintiff’s husband, José Leon, was shot and killed by a neighbor in a driveway of a mobilehome park in Cherry Valley, where the plaintiff and the decedent José Leon lived.

Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies unsuccessfully attempted to revive José but, before doing so, one of the deputies dragged José’s body several feet and, in the process of being dragged, José’s pants fell to his thighs, exposing his genitals. José’s body lay, with his genitals exposed, for around eight hours while sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officers evacuated the mobilehome park, located the shooter who had shot himself dead, and continued investigating the shooting. José’s body was not removed until shortly after the coroner arrived on the scene and completed processing the body.

Dora sued the County of Riverside, alleging negligent infliction of emotional distress, based on the failure of Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies to promptly cover José’s exposed body, or remove the body from the scene, while deputies evacuated the mobilehome park, searched for the shooter, and investigated the shooting.

The trial court granted the county’s motion for summary judgment.

Ms. Leon appealed the judgment in favor of the county, claiming that the deputies who responded to the shooting, and the county as the deputies’ employer, owed Dora a duty of care not to allow José’s body to lie exposed while deputies and other law enforcement officers secured the area and investigated the shooting.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment finding that the county is immune from liability to Dora for any negligence or other tortious conduct on the part of the deputies in failing to promptly cover José’s body, or promptly remove José’s body from the crime scene.

Undisputed evidence shows that the deputies’ negligence, if any, occurred during the course of the deputies’ official investigation of the shooting.

For this reason, the deputies are immune from liability to Dora (§ 821.6), and, the county, as the deputies’ public entity employer, is immune from vicarious liability for the deputies’ negligence, if any. (Gov. Code, §§ 815.2, subd. (b), 821.6.)

This is just another case in a long line where the Courts have consistently construed Government Code §821.6 as immunizing a public employee from liability for any injury-causing act or omission in the course of the institution and prosecution of any judicial or administrative proceeding, including an investigation that may precede the institution of any such proceeding.

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