Lawsuit Against Parole Officer for Failure to Warn Foster Parent

In Johnson v. State of California (1968), 69 Cal. 2d 782, a foster parent sued the state for negligence when a parole officer failed to warn the foster parent of the homicidal tendencies of a 16-year-old boy who was placed in her home and who subsequently assaulted the foster parent. The trial court granted summary judgment on the foster parent's claim, based upon arguments regarding various immunities and the state's duty of care. On appeal, the California Supreme Court considered various issues raised by the parties, including the state's secondary argument that the parole officer's conduct constituted a "misrepresentation" entitled to immunity under Government Code section 818.8. (Johnson v. State of California, supra, 69 Cal. 2d at pp. 799-800.) Examining section 818.8, the court stated: "The Legislature, in creating this exemption, must have had in mind those areas in which private defendants typically face liability for 'misrepresentation'; in other areas, immunity for 'misrepresentation' would be superfluous." (69 Cal. 2d at p. 800.) The court then noted that the tort of misrepresentation had been confined "very largely to the invasion of interests of a financial or commercial character, in the course of business dealings." (Ibid.) The court concluded that the Legislature had designed section 818.8 to exempt governmental entities from liabilities of this type. The court thus held that the parole officer's failure to give adequate warnings to the foster parent was not a "misrepresentation" interfering with a financial or commercial interest, and therefore the immunity of section 818.8 did not apply. (69 Cal. 2d at p. 800.) The principle of Johnson v. State of California, supra, 69 Cal. 2d 782, was applied in a case arising out of the adoption process, Michael J. v. Los Angeles County Dept. of Adoptions (1988) 201 Cal. App. 3d 859 247 Cal. Rptr. 504. In that case, an adoptive parent alleged that the county had failed to determine the medical condition of her adopted child, and had made misrepresentations of the child's complete health. When the child was later diagnosed as suffering from a congenital degenerative nerve disorder, the adoptive parent sued the county for medical expenses and emotional distress. The trial court granted the county's motion for summary judgment on the basis that the claims were barred by Government Code section 818.8. the parent appealed. After discussing Johnson v. State of California, supra, 69 Cal. 2d 782, and related cases, the Michael J. court held that the claims in Michael J., like those in Johnson, did not constitute "misrepresentation" within the meaning of Govenment Code section 818.8. the court stated: "The adoption process is not a commercial transaction, such as leasing and purchasing property or contracting for a pension. The immunity provided governmental entities and public employees by sections 818.8 and 822.2 does not shield the County from liability for misrepresentation and deceit in this social service area, designed to serve the interests of society by acting in the best interests of the child. Although appellants suffer a financial loss in the sense that they have incurred, and will continue to incur, substantial medical expenses, their loss did not result from a commercial transaction with the County nor from the County's interference with a commercial transaction." (Michael J. v. Los Angeles County Dept. of Adoptions, supra, 201 Cal. App. 3d at p. 872.) The court also stated that "public policy cannot extend to condone concealment or intentional misrepresentation which misleads prospective adoptive parents about the unusual calamity they are assuming. The adoption of a child is an act of compassion, love and humanitarian concern where the adoptive parent voluntarily assumes enormous legal, moral, social and financial obligations. Accordingly, a trustworthy process benefits society, as well as the child and parent." (Id. at p. 875.) In both Johnson v. State of California, supra, 69 Cal. 2d 782, and Michael J. v. Los Angeles County Dept. of Adoptions, supra, 201 Cal. App. 3d 859, courts held that the legal system must protect parents from intentional misrepresentations made by those who place children in the parents' homes. The courts emphasized the commercial or financial contexts in which misrepresentation claims typically originate, and distinguished the placement cases because they did not involve commercial transactions or interference with financial interests.