The D.C. Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that two Mount Pleasant women, who were raped and beaten by intruders a half hour after they called police and received assurances that help was on the way, are not entitled to sue the D.C. police department for negligence.
The 4-3 decision, which reversed a three-judge panel's decision, stemmed from a 1975 rape case in which the women called police after hearing a third woman's screams as she was being assaulted elsewhere in the home all three shared.
A police dispatcher assured them that an officer would be sent to investigate, but the two women, who had climbed out their bedroom window to an adjacent rooftop, watched helplessly as a police cruiser circled their house without stopping and another officer apparently knocked on the front door and left.
The two women returned to the house and again called the police. Then, apparently believing the police might be in the house, called down to the third woman. Hearing the calls, the intruders abducted all three women at knifepoint. They were held captive for the next 14 hours, raped, robbed, beaten and assaulted.
Both men were later caught and sentenced to multiple 10-to-30 year prison terms.
Superior Court Judge Joseph M. Hannon dismissed the women's suit in 1978 on the principle that the department does not owe a specific obligation to particular individuals, only to the general public, and could not be sued over this incident.
On Dec. 24, 1980, Appeals Court Judges Catherine B. Kelly and Julia Cooper Mack reversed Hannon's ruling. In her opinion, Kelly argued that "when a police department employe tells frantic callers that help is on the way, it is reasonably foreseeable that the persons so assured may forego, to their detriment, other avenues of help."
Judge Frank Q. Nebeker, who issued a strong dissent from that ruling, wrote the majority opinion yesterday. He was joined by Judges John M. Ferren, Stanley S. Harris and John W. Kern. Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr. joined Kelly's dissent, along with Mack. Judge William C. Pryor did not participate in the case, apparently because he was the trial judge in a related case included in the appeal. Judge James A. Belson was not on the court when the case was first heard last April.
In his opinion, Nebeker said the dispatcher's assurances were not sufficient to overcome the general barrier to suits against police, "notwithstanding our sympathy for the women who were the tragic victims of despicable criminal acts . . . ."
In her dissent yesterday, Kelly agreed that citizens generally are not entitled to sue the city "unless a 'special duty' to a particular individual can be shown . . . ." But Kelly insisted that the dispatcher's assurances to the women established that special relationship, and they should have been allowed to sue.
The women's attorney, Stephen A. Friedman, said he would appeal yesterday's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It gives the cops in D.C. absolute power to do whatever they want and no incentive to do their jobs," Friedman said. "It tells the 95 percent of the police who are competent and who will go down a dark alley that no one is going to bother them if they don't do that."
Deputy Corporation Counsel Charles L. Reischel had urged that the suit be dismissed, however, saying that police at times receive more than 300 calls an hour for assistance, and the city should not be made liable if a dispatcher, trained to try to calm callers, indicates help is on the way.