California Landmark Cases on Liability for Third Party Conduct

When analyzing duty in the context of third party acts, courts distinguish between "misfeasance" and "nonfeasance." (Lugtu v. California Highway Patrol (2001) 26 Cal.4th 703, 716.) "Misfeasance exists when the defendant is responsible for making the plaintiff's position worse, i.e., defendant has created a risk. Conversely, nonfeasance is found when the defendant has failed to aid plaintiff through beneficial intervention." (Weirum v. RKO General, Inc. (1975) 15 Cal.3d 40, 49.) A legal duty may arise from affirmative acts "where the defendant, through his or her own action (misfeasance) has made the plaintiff's position worse and has created a foreseeable risk of harm from the third person. In such cases the question of duty is governed by the standards of ordinary care." (Pamela L. v. Farmer (1980) 112 Cal.App.3d 206, 209; see Lugtu v. California Highway Patrol, supra, 26 Cal.4th at p. 716; Weirum, supra, 15 Cal.3d at p. 49.) By contrast, nonfeasance generally does not give rise to a legal duty. The underlying premise is that "a person should not be liable for 'nonfeasance' in failing to act as a 'good Samaritan." (Pamela L. v. Farmer, supra, 112 Cal.App.3d at p. 209.) In other words, "one 'who has not created a peril is not liable in tort merely for failure to take affirmative action to assist or protect another' from the acts of a third party." (Garcia, supra, 164 Cal.App.4th at p. 1453, fn. 3, quoting Williams v. State of California (1983) 34 Cal.3d 18, 23.) Thus, absent misfeasance, "as a general matter, there is no duty to act to protect others from the conduct of third parties." (Delgado v. Trax Bar & Grill (2005) 36 Cal.4th 224, 235.) (6) Even in the case of nonfeasance, there are "recognized exceptions to the general no-duty-to-protect rule," one of which is the special relationship doctrine. (Delgado, supra, 36 Cal.4th at p. 235; see Weirum, supra, 15 Cal.3d at p. 49.) "A defendant may owe an affirmative duty to protect another from the conduct of third parties if he or she has a 'special relationship' with the other person." (Delgado, at p. 235.) Where there is a legal basis for imposing a duty--as in cases of misfeasance or when a special relationship exists--the court considers the foreseeability of risk from the third party conduct. Generally, "a duty to take affirmative action to control the wrongful acts of a third party will be imposed only where such conduct can be reasonably anticipated." (Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993) 6 Cal.4th 666, 676 25 Cal.Rptr.2d 137, 863 P.2d 207 (Ann M.); see Wiener, supra, 32 Cal.4th at p. 1146; Rest.2d Torts, 314A, com. e, p. 120.) And "in the case of criminal conduct by a third party, an extraordinarily high degree of foreseeability is required to impose a duty on the landowner, in part because 'it is difficult if not impossible in today's society to predict when a criminal might strike.' " (Garcia, supra, 164 Cal.App.4th at p. 1457, quoting Wiener, at p. 1150.) Foreseeability is balanced against "the burden of the duty to be imposed. Where the burden of prevention is great, a high degree of foreseeability is usually required; whereas where there are strong public policy reasons for preventing the harm, or the harm can be prevented by simple means, a lesser degree of foreseeability may be required." (Rinehart, supra, 133 Cal.App.4th at p. 431.) "In each case, however, the existence and scope of a property owner's duty to protect against third party crime is a question of law for the court to resolve." (Castaneda, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 1213.)