SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A Northern California couple who helped a sheriff's employee by checking on their rural neighbor only to be attacked by a killer wielding a hunting knife are not entitled to damages from the sheriff's office, the state's highest court said Thursday.
Jim and Norma Gund sued for $10 million after the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office said they were only entitled to workers' compensation when they were hurt doing the favor for Cpl. Ron Whitman nine years ago in the remote town of Kettenpom.
Whitman phoned the Gunds on March 12, 2011, and asked them to check on their neighbor, who had called 911 and hung up. When the couple arrived, a man who had just killed two people attacked them with a knife and a stun gun. The Gunds each had their throats slashed and almost died.
The California Supreme Court backed up a lower court and ruled in favor of the sheriff's office, saying the Gunds were engaged in “active law enforcement service" when they went to their neighbor's house.
“When the Gunds provided the requested assistance, they delivered an active response to the 911 call of a local resident pleading for help. A response of this kind unquestionably falls within the scope of a police officer’s law enforcement duties,” the court wrote.
The justices agreed with attorneys for the sheriff's office who argued the Gunds were volunteers and only entitled to workers’ compensation for their injuries.
Sheriff's officials didn't immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment on the ruling. A phone number for the Gunds could not be found.
They couple said in their lawsuit that Whitman failed to disclose that the caller, Kristine Constantino, had whispered “help me” during the 911 call.
The Supreme Court found it didn’t matter to the case that the sheriff's corporal omitted key details that the Gunds said would have made them more cautious approaching their neighbor’s home.
The California Highway Patrol dispatcher who took the 911 call told Whitman she was wary about calling the number back because she didn’t want to alert a possible assailant, the Gunds' lawsuit claimed.
“Whether or not any alleged omissions in Corporal Whitman’s request could conceivably prove relevant to legal actions alleging malfeasance, they do not change our conclusion about the scope of workers’ compensation in this tragic case,” the court ruled.
After driving the quarter-mile to the neighbor's house, Norma Gund went inside and had her throat and face slashed by a man who had just killed Constantino and her boyfriend. James Gund then entered and the attacker cut his throat and shocked him with the stun gun.
Norma Gund underwent multiple surgeries to reconstruct her face and neck.
The suspect, Tomas Pitagoras Gouverneur, died in a high-speed car crash shortly after the killings while being chased by police. The motive for the slayings is not known.