This chilling case demonstrates the perils of helping police

Doing the right thing can turn out very wrong.
Doing the right thing can turn out very wrong.
Image: Reuters/Sergio Flores
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No good deed goes unpunished, as a June 4 California appeals court decision proves. The state’s third appellate district court last week affirmed a dismissal of a chilling case (pdf).

James and Norma Gund had their throats slashed after unwittingly helping Trinity County law enforcement with a criminal investigation. But their claims of negligence and misrepresentation were thrown out. The courts found that they should have filed for workers’ compensation instead of filing a civil suit because they were “working” for the county, though they had no idea that’s what they agreed to when a deputy sent them into a terrifying crime scene.

Here’s what happened. In 2011, a woman calls 911 in Trinity County and whispers, desperately, “Help me.”  She hangs up quickly with no explanation.

The dispatcher calls back, but no one picks up the phone. So, dispatch contacts Corporal Ron Whitman, the deputy on duty.  He, too, makes a call. Whitman doesn’t rush over to assist, as the 911 caller lives far away, at the edge of an airstrip. Instead, he enlists her neighbor, Norma Gund, asking her to check in on the woman, who Gund happens to know. Whitman tells Gund “it’s probably no big deal” and that the request for help likely had to do with inclement weather. He makes no mention of the desperate whisper.

But the deputy does warn Gund not to go alone, so she takes her husband, James. On the drive over, the couple wonders what the problem might be. They imagine that their neighbor, a young woman from the city, is stumped by her wood-burning stove or spooked by a fallen tree near her remote home.

Upon arrival, Norma goes in the house while James waits in the truck. Soon, he hears a commotion and decides to check on his wife.

Inside, he finds two dead bodies, heads covered with bags, and his wife with a knife at her throat. As James turns to run, the murderer tackles him and slits his throat as well. This gives Norma time to hightail it out of the house, jump in their truck, and go to the store for help. After the murderer flees, James walks home.

Ultimately, the Gunds both survive the harrowing incident and sue Trinity County and the deputy for damages, claiming negligence and misrepresentation. Though it might seem like an open-and-shut case, and that the Gunds would be paid for their troubles, the county successfully moves to dismiss, arguing that they were on the job as law enforcement officers. The court agrees, noting that tort law isn’t designed to compensate emergency service people, even if they happen to be volunteers, deceived by a deputy, like the Gunds.

Last week, the appeals court affirmed. Since the deputy would have been investigating a 911 call, and would have been on duty if he’d gone to the crime scene himself instead of sending the Gunds, the couple was, basically, working. Adding insult to literal injury, the couple was ordered to pay the county’s legal fees on appeal.