Tuesday, January 30, 2007
C.A. Applies Joint, Several Liability to Strict Liability Action
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A defendant in a strict products liability action, unlike a defendant in a negligence case, is jointly and severally liable to the plaintiff for non-economic damages, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Three affirmed a Los Angeles Superior Court judge’s ruling that the manufacturer of a defective piece of fitness equipment was entitled under joint-and-several liability principles to a setoff of the full amount of another defendant’s settlement with the plaintiff.
The plaintiff argued that because the settling tortfeaser was found by the jury not to be at fault—the jury apportioned fault 90 percent to the manufacturer and 10 percent to the plaintiff—the manufacturer was only severally liable for noneconomic damages and the setoff should be limited to the award of economic damages.
The argument was based on Proposition 51, which a divided Court of Appeal said was inapplicable.
The plaintiff, Harold Bostick, was a 31-year-old law student when he was injured while working out at Gold’s Gym in Venice. Using a Smith weight-lifting machine, and attempting to lift over 300 pounds, he collapsed to the floor and fell straight down under the weight of the barbell, which came to rest on his neck, pushing his head forward.
Bostick, who suffered a broken neck and severe spinal cord injury, sued Gold’s Gym, Inc., along with Flex and two other defendants. Gold’s Gym, Inc. reached a $7.3 million settlement, which retired Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien, sitting on assignment, held to be in good faith.
At trial, the jury returned a verdict awarding the plaintiff nearly $3.3 million in economic damages, $13 million in noneconomic damages, and $1 in punitive damages. O’Brien ruled that the liability of Gold’s Gym and Flex was joint and several, resulting in a net award of about $7.35 million after deducting 10 percent based on comparative fault and the full amount paid by Gold’s Gym.
Justice Richard Aldrich, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge ruled correctly under Wimberly v. Derby Cycle Corp. (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 618. The court held in that case that the traditional rule of joint and several liability for all defendants in the chain of distribution when a case is decided on the basis of strict products liability is not affected by Proposition 51.
That measure, a 1986 initiative which abolished joint and several liability for noneconomic damages, only applies when damages are apportioned on the basis of fault, the court held, not when—as in strict liability cases—liability is imposed on the defendant, regardless of fault, as a matter of public policy, the court held.
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, Aldrich said it was error to award Gold’s Gym total equitable indemnity on its cross-complaint against Flex, based on the jury’s finding that “other entities,” including Gold’s Gym, were not at fault.
That award was based on the conclusion that collateral estoppel precluded Flex from litigating the issue of comparative fault with respect to the cross-complaint, and that conclusion was erroneous since Flex had no meaningful incentive to litigate the issue of Gold’s Gym’s comparative fault on the trial on the complaint, the justice said.
Justice Patti Kitching joined Aldrich’s opinion, while Justice Walter Croskey concurred separately.
Croskey argued that Wimberly was wrongly decided, and that Proposition 51 is properly applied in strict liability cases. He also concluded, however, that Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 877, governing setoff in cases of good faith settlement, requires that the full amount paid by Gold’s Gym be credited against the award.
The case is Bostick v. Flex Equipment Company, Inc., B171567.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company