Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Third District C.A. Limits Impact of Proposition 213
Bar on Non-Economic Damages Does Not Apply to Woman who Was Unaware of Interest
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Proposition 213’s bar on non-economic damages for owners of uninsured vehicles involved in collisions did not apply to a woman who did not know she held an interest in the vehicle in which she was injured while a passenger, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Affirming a $1.9 million award to Puaolele Ieremia for injuries she suffered after the truck her husband had led her to believe was only borrowed was struck from behind, the court concluded that Ieremia was not an “owner” subject to the prohibition because, having never exercised any incidents of ownership over the truck, she could not have chosen to flout voters’ intent that owners insure their vehicles.
California voters passed Proposition 213 in 1996, which, as codified in Civil Code Sec. 3333.4, prohibits recovery of any “non-economic losses to compensate for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other pecuniary damages” if the injured person owned the vehicle involved, and the vehicle was not insured.
The Hilmar Unified School District sought to invoke the law to limit Ieremia’s recovery when she brought suit in 2004 after a truck driven by district employee Dick Wyatt Piersma collided with the Dodge Durango driven by Ieremia’s husband in which she was riding.
Ieremia’s husband, Roy Ieremia, had recently completed a several-months long installment plan using his wages to purchase the truck from his boss for $6,000, but had not told his wife about the purchase.
Although he had been given immediate possession, and had been the exclusive driver, driving to and from work and his sister’s home, he had not received a pink slip from his boss, and neither his name nor his wife’s was listed on the truck’s title at the time of the accident.
After the parties stipulated that Puaolele Ieremia did not know her husband had purchased the Durango using community funds, never drove the vehicle, never saw it before one or two days prior to the collision, and understood from her husband that his boss had lent him the vehicle so they could make a trip to a casino, San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Carter P. Holly found that Ieremia was not the vehicle’s “owner,” and a jury later awarded her non-economic damages.
On appeal, Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye explained that Holly was correct given the Court of Appeal’s decision in Savnik v. Hall (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 733 that a woman whose boyfriend had registered her as a co-owner of his vehicle with the Department of Motor Vehicles “out of the goodness of [his] heart,” but who was never informed of her boyfriend’s action, was not an “owner” under Proposition 213.
‘Incidents of Ownership’
Echoing the Savnik court’s reasoning, Cantil-Sakauye wrote that interpreting the term to apply to all community property interests, instead of those over whom a plaintiff has exercised “incidents of ownership,” would be inconsistent with the initiative’s stated purpose of limiting recovery for drivers who “break the law” and “choose to directly defy” vehicle insurance requirements.
“Considering the electorate’s intended purposes, it would be anomalous to adopt a construction of the word “owner”…that would deprive a person of the right to non-economic damages without regard to their individual culpability for the vehicle’s uninsured status,” she said.
“We simply do not believe the voters intended Proposition 213 to be construed to apply to a spouse whose only incident of ownership in a vehicle is a community property interest of which he or she is completely unaware. Such a spouse had not failed to ‘take essential personal responsibility’ for insuring the vehicle.”
Justices Harry Hull and Ronald B. Robie joined Cantil-Sakauye in her opinion.
The case is Ieremia v. Hilmar Unified School District, C056319.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company