State Of Iowa Is Not Liable For Sexual Assault By Sexual Predator

By harley erbe

On April 14, 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court issued its decision in Estate of Mercedes Gottschalk v. Pomeroy Development and State of Iowa.  Mercedes Gottschalk was a resident at Pomeroy Care Center.  She was sexually assaulted by another resident, William Cubbage.  Mercedes's estate sued the State for negligence in the way that it handled Cubbage.  Pomeroy Care Center likewise sued the state in an attempt to have the State share some or all of the responsibility for what happened to Mercedes. 

Before Cubbage became a resident of the Pomeroy Care Center, he'd had a long history of sexual offenses.  The State of Iowa had determined Cubbage to be a sexually violent predator and committed him to the custody of the state.  He was later released from the State's custody by court order and committed to Pomeroy Care Center, where he assaulted Mercedes Gottschalk.  The issues before the Iowa Supreme Court concerned whether the State of Iowa owed Mercedes or Pomeroy Care Center any obligations in releasing Cubbage from the State's control. 

The estate argued that the State of Iowa had a duty to warn Pomeroy Care Center's residents of Cubbage's background before he was placed there and establish safety protocols to protect the residents from Cubbage.  In that regard, the court analyzed whether there was a "special relationship" between Pomeroy Care Center's residents and the State that required the State to take steps to safeguard the residents from Cubbage.  The court concluded that no such special relationship existed because it was the court system, not the State, that made the decision to release Cubbage from the State's custody.  The State thus had no duty to warn Pomeroy Care Center's residents or establish safety protocols because it was not responsible for Cubbage's release from state control, the courts were.

Pomeroy Care Center also sued the State in an effort to spread the blame for what happened to Mercedes.  The care center argued, like the estate did, that the State had a duty to warn the residents about the danger Cubbage posed.  The care center also contended that the care center acted negligently in discharging Cubbage from state control, that the State acted negligently in performing its role in Cubbage's civil commitment to the Pomeroy Care Center, and that the State acted negligently in failing to supervise and monitor Cubbage .  The court rejected those arguments for the same reasons it did when the estate made them because Cubbage's transfer to Pomeroy Care Center was the result of court action, not unilateral action by the State.

This was a tragic situation.  It's important to note that only the claims against the State of Iowa were dismissed.  The claims against Pomeroy Care Center itself remain.  Also noteworthy is that the Iowa Supreme Court was unusually divided in its opinion.  Not only did two justices disagree with the decision and file separate dissenting opinions, but even some of the five judges who agreed with the decision filed separate opinions expressing other reasons why the State bore no liability to Mercedes or Pomeroy Care Center.

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