Muscat v. Creative Innervisions (CA1 12/26/17)

The court both decides and avoids deciding whether you can sue someone for letting you commit a crime.

Plaintiff was a disabled child-abuser placed in a group home. The home took him to a church function but failed to supervise him, whereupon he molested another child. Having pled guilty to it and been sentenced for it, he sued the group home in negligence and under the Adult Protective Services Act for letting him do it. Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings; the trial court granted it.

On the negligence count the Court of Appeals affirms. Defendant argued the “wrongful conduct rule,” accepted elsewhere, by which you can’t sue in tort for injury resulting from your own crime (i.e., your sentence). The court suggests that that doctrine is “slippery” and declines, it says, to rule on whether it applies. Instead it gets to the same place by a different route: it decides that the injury resulting from your own crime is not a cognizable item of damage. “Injury” is the  “invasion of [a] legally protected interest,” per Restatement 7. “No properly-convicted criminal has a legally protected interest in being free from the inherent consequences of the resulting sentence.” Apparently the court does things this way to avoid the charge of abrogating a cause of action; “we are aware of no authority suggesting that “injuries” under the anti-abrogation clause should be interpreted differently than “injuries” recognized under tort law.”

But as to the vulnerable-adult claim the court vacates. The claim was only “briefly” addressed in the motion papers, which did not give it “meaningful” analysis, and the trial court’s ruling didn’t mention it. “Whether [Plaintiff] has stated a viable claim under [the statute] must be considered by the superior court in the first instance.” So the court remands.

This can’t be the proper analysis. Is it to be the law that a ruling is vulnerable because the court decides that the arguments below were insufficiently lengthy or “meaningful”? If so, by what standard are those things to be judged? The court’s real concern seems to be that the trial court issued a “detailed” ruling that didn’t separately discuss the statutory claim. But it issued a judgment and is assumed to have addressed the issues necessary to do so. If (as the Court of Appeals suggests) the negligence analysis doesn’t apply to the statutory claim then the situation is that the trial court didn’t apply the right standard, not that it skipped the issue.

The court says that “the parties have not provided any helpful briefing on this issue.” Maybe that’s the answer. We should give the court some credit: maybe the parties really didn’t give it anything to work with and it would rather rule based on the parties’ arguments than on its own theories. That’s a valid concern to have, as we’ve said several times. But in that event the answer is to request supplemental briefs, not to bend the standards of appellate review.

(Opinion: Muscat v. Creative Innervisions)