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Two Step Inquiry for Determining Duty to Protect a Plaintiff from Injuries Caused by a Third Party

A recent case, Brown v. USA Taekwondo, 11 Cal. 5th 204, took up the issue as to whether the United States Olympic Committee and USA Taekwondo could be held liable for the sexual abuse caused by a third-party coach.

Plaintiff athletes sued the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Taekwondo (USAT). Plaintiffs alleged both defendants were negligent in failing to protect them from sexual abuse committed them by their coach. At the demurrer stage, the trial court entered judgments of dismissal against both defendants, finding they had no duty to protect the plaintiffs against the actions of the third-party coach.

The Court of Appeal, Second Dist., reversed the judgment dismissing USA Taekwondo but affirmed the dismissal as to USOC.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged a special relationship that enabled USAT to control the coach’s actions. The Court of Appeal then went on to consider whether the Rowland factors counseled against imposing a duty on USAT, and determined they did not. By contrast, the Court of Appeal concluded that USOC, unlike USAT, had no special relationship with either the plaintiffs or the coach, and thus no legal duty to protect the plaintiffs from the coach’s abuse.

Recently, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court held that whether to recognize a duty to protect a plaintiff from injuries caused by a third party is governed by a two-step inquiry.

First, the court must determine whether there exists a special relationship or some other set of circumstances giving rise to an affirmative duty to protect.

Second, if the court finds that a special relationship exists, it must consult the Rowland factors (reasonable care balancing test) to determine whether policy considerations counsel limiting that duty.

The Court of Appeal used the correct approach in concluding that USAT did have a special relationship with plaintiffs and applying the Rowland factors to determine whether to limit that potential duty—deciding the answer to that question was no.

The Court of Appeal’s approach in concluding that the USOC had no special relationship with either party and ending its analysis with respect to that defendant was sound.

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