Monday, June 01, 2015

State Dept. of State Hospitals v. Superior Ct. (Cal. Supreme Ct. - June 1, 2015)

The month of June 2015 begins with an especially depressing fact pattern in the California Supreme Court:

"In 2007, Gilton Pitre was paroled from state prison. Before his release, the State Department of Mental Health (DMH) assessed whether he should be civilly committed under the Sexually Violent Predators Act (SVPA). (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 6600 et seq.) Ultimately, the Director of Mental Health did not request a petition for commitment and Pitre left prison. Four days later, he raped and murdered plaintiff Elaina Novoa‘s 15-year-old sister, Alyssa Gomez."

You might think that since the California Supreme Court is hearing the case, and it's one that involves the above facts, it's a death penalty opinion.  Not true.  At issue is a civil lawsuit against the State.  Mr. Pitre received life in prison, not death.

You might also think from the lineup in the California Supreme Court that it's a contentious result.  Justice Corrigan's majority opinion is joined by three justices -- Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Chin and Cuellar -- and Justice Werdegar's contrary opinion is joined by two (Justices Liu and Kruger).  So it's a 4-3.

Yet that's not really true either.  Every single justice agrees not only on the result, but also that there's no proximate cause.  It's true that the Department of Mental Health was required to evaluate Mr. Pitre before his release with two doctors, not just one.  (The one doctor concluded that Mr. Pitre was not a sexually violent predator, and on that basis the state exercised its discretion not to seek the further involuntary commitment of Mr. Pitre.)  But even if that might have been a but-for cause of Ms. Gomez's death, the California Supreme Court unanimously agrees that it wasn't the proximate cause.  Hence that the lawsuit against the Department of Mental Health was properly dismissed.

The only disagreement between the justices is over precisely why there's not proximate cause; in particular, whether public policy concerns also support the conclusion that there's no proximate cause.

Which is an interesting debate, but also one that's entirely academic. Because there's no proximate cause here.  End of story.