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California Residential Care Facility Not Off the Hook for Abuse Claim

Police reports are often found to be inadmissible as hearsay in both civil and criminal cases. However, there are certain situations in which the information contained in police reports might meet an exception to the hearsay rule and be admissible in court. In Doe v. Brightstar Residential Inc., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B304084, the Court of Appeal considered whether the trial court had erroneously excluded a police file in a civil sexual assault case against a residential care home filed by a developmentally disabled woman and her father.

Factual and Procedural Background

Jane Doe was a developmentally disabled young woman with severe autism and other diagnoses in her 20s who lived at Brightstar Residential Incorporated, a facility that provides residential care and supervision for people with mental disabilities. Doe had the mental capacity of a child. Doe was unable to do things for herself or recognize hazards and required constant supervision.

Mary Machado was the executive director and administrator of Brightstar. While she testified she was the sole owner and responsible party, documents showed that she and her husband, Norlan Machado, jointly owned and ran Brightstar together. On the company’s organizational chart, Mary Machado was listed as the chief executive officer (CEO), and Norlan Machado was listed as the program manager.

Brightstar’s employees underwent training to report situations that might place the residents in danger. The employee handbook also stated that Brightstar had a zero-tolerance policy against any form of abuse or harassment against the residents.

Ruben Alcala was hired by Brightstar in 2011 to work as the agency’s handyman and was classified as an independent contractor. He had been recommended by Martha Amparo, a caregiver at Brightstar whom Alcala was dating. Norlan and Mary Machado testified that they had told all of the independent contractors at Brightstar to have no contact with the residents beyond simple greetings and that they were told that they could never be alone with a resident.

Alcala did not have a set schedule and instead worked without supervision and only as needed. He was only supposed to work during the daylight hours and only be on the property during scheduled work times. His work schedule could only be approved by supervisor Jessica Murillo or the Machados.

On May 10, 2016, at 11 pm, Alcala went to the property and tapped on Doe’s window. He told her to climb out of the window, which she did. The sole nighttime caregiver, Carmelita Zabala, spotted someone outside between the two homes that made up Brightstar. She went to investigate and found Doe naked from the waist down and Alcala pulling up and zipping his pants. Alcala fled the property and left the country.

Doe expressed that she had been sexually assaulted. Because of her difficulties communicating, she said that Alcala placed his “peephole” in her mouth. Investigators found Alcala’s DNA in saliva on Doe’s breasts and genitals. Prior to the assault, Brightstar did not have an alarm system or surveillance cameras installed, and it only had one overnight caregiver.

Through her father, Doe filed a lawsuit against Brightstar Residential Inc. and both Machados for negligent hiring, supervision, and retention, negligence, and negligent failure to warn, educate, or train.

The Machados and Brightstar filed motions for summary judgment and adjudication on the negligence claim and argued that all of Doe’s causes of action were so similar in nature that there were no significant differences between them. They argued that Alcala’s assault on Doe was not reasonably foreseeable and that they did not have any information about his dangerous propensities before the attack occurred. They also argued that Doe had not presented evidence showing that they had done anything to breach their contract with Doe and her father or had engaged in any conduct to cause the assault.

Doe argued that the Machados and Brightstar had ample warnings about Alcala’s propensities and frequently cited a police file from the May 2016 assault. The defendants objected to the police file as inadmissible hearsay, and the court sustained the objection. It granted the motions for summary judgment, finding that the remaining evidence without the police file did not amount to enough to support Doe’s causes of action. Doe filed an appeal.

Issue: Did the trial court properly exclude the police file as inadmissible hearsay?

Police reports are generally considered to be inadmissible hearsay because they contain out-of-court statements about the truth of the matter. Brightstar and the Machados argued that the police file was thus inadmissible hearsay and was properly excluded by the trial court.

Rule: The general rule is that police reports are inadmissible hearsay. However, there are some exceptions to the hearsay rule.

Under Cal. Evid. Code § 1200, police reports are generally considered to be inadmissible hearsay because they include statements by parties other than witnesses made outside of court about the truth of the matter asserted. They are frequently determined to be inadmissible because they generally include statements to police by people with no duty to report so include double-hearsay statements under Cal. Evid. Code § 1271, p. 6. However, double hearsay can be admissible under Cal. Evid. Code § 1201 if it includes statements that meet an exception to the hearsay rule.

Analysis

Brightstar and the Machados argued as a preliminary matter that there were three reasons why the Court of Appeal should not consider whether the police file was admissible. It first argued that Doe had forfeited her arguments when she failed to raise them in the trial court by not including them as written oppositions to their evidentiary objections. However, the Court of Appeal said that there isn’t a rule requiring written oppositions and that Doe’s attorney had preserved the issue by arguing that the police file should be admitted at the summary judgment hearing.

Brightstar next argued that Doe did not cite the police file properly in her written statement but conceded that the police files were solely excluded by the trial court as inadmissible hearsay. The court found that this argument was incorrect.

The third argument Brightstar raised against the Court of Appeal considering the question of admissibility was that Doe did not identify key facts from the police file. However, the Court of Appeal noted that Doe did preserve the issue by stating that the police file contained evidence that Alcala had multiple red flags that the defendants ignored.

The Court of Appeal then considered the police file and whether any of the evidence contained within it was admissible under an exception to the hearsay rule. Shortly after the assault, Norlan Machado made admissions to the police officers that Alcala had been loitering around Brightstar’s property and harassing female employees. This admission qualified as an admission by a party opponent, which is an exception to the hearsay rule under Cal. Evid. Code § 1220 and also for its truth against Brightstar under Cal. Evid. Code § 1222.

The Court of Appeal also found that the police report was admissible as a public record under Cal. Evid. § Code 1280. The court noted that Brightstar did not challenge the authenticity or truthfulness of the police report and instead only argued that certain statements contained within it were hearsay. The court also noted that Doe’s case was a civil case instead of a criminal case, so it did not affect confrontation clause issues.

The appellate court found that Machado’s statement to the police was relevant because it included a permissible inference that he knew or had reason to know about Alcala’s propensities to harass women. It found that Machado’s statement should properly have been admitted and included in the record. The court also found that several statements made by Brightstar’s other employees about Alcala’s being present on the property during non-working hours and in the evenings and several witnessed interactions between Alcala and Doe should have been admitted.

The court found that the trial court had abused its discretion in declaring all of the statements in the police file as inadmissible hearsay.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s summary judgment order and returned the case for further proceedings. Doe was awarded her costs on appeal.

Get Help from an Experienced Los Angeles Injury Lawyer

If your loved one was assaulted while in the care of a residential home for the elderly or disabled, you should speak to an experienced lawyer at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC. Call us today for a free consultation to learn more about your options and rights at 866-966-5240.

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