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Court narrows liability for employee assaults

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The Court of Appeal of California has limited the situations in which an employer will be liable for assaults committed by its employees.

In the past, the California Supreme Court has ruled that a police department can be held liable if a police officer stops and sexually assaults someone. In a new case, the court made it clear that police officers are different than most other public employers in that they can stop and detain members of the public, and that it makes sense to hold their employers liable from harm that results from the abuse of police power.

The court, however, refused to extend the rule to firefighters.

Recent case: A female photographer, identified in court documents only as M.P., alleged that two firefighters—one on duty and the other off duty—sexually assaulted her while she was covering the annual Porn Star Costume Ball at a Sacramento hotel. She said the firefighters invited M.P. to take their pictures in a firetruck and, once they had her inside, forced her to perform oral sex.

She sued, alleging the city of Sacramento was responsible for the assault.

But the court disagreed. It said the alleged conduct was outside the scope of the firefighters’ employment. Plus, it concluded firefighters don’t fit into the same category as police officers because they do not have the power to detain citizens. (M.P. v. City of Sacramento, No. C057324, Court of Appeal of California, 3rd Appellate Division, 2009)

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