Thursday, April 24, 2008
Pretrial Merits Showing Required in Claim Against Religious Healthcare Facility for Punitive Damages
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A state law requiring an early merits showing when a plaintiff seeks punitive damages from a religious organization applies to an elder abuse claim against a religiously affiliated healthcare corporation, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Seven directed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patrick T. Madden to vacate his order denying a motion to strike an unsubstantiated punitive damage claim. The panel said the Legislature intended that a religious healthcare provider have greater protection from punitive damage claims than secular healthcare providers.
Francisco Marin’s mother, Julia Gomez died from complications related to her diabetes while under the care of the Little Company of Mary Hospital and Subacute Care Center, which are owned and operated by Providence Health System‑Southern California, a tax-exempt religious corporation affiliated with the Catholic church. Marin filed suit against the healthcare corporation, alleging elder abuse and seeking punitive damages.
The healthcare corporation moved to strike the punitive damages claim, invoking the protections of California Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.14, which provides that no claim for punitive damages can be made against a religious corporation unless the plaintiff demonstrates a likelihood of prevailing.. Marin argued that the pretrial showing of merit requirement was inapplicable to elder abuse claims against healthcare providers pursuant to Sec. 425.13.
The trial judge reasoned that both Sec. 425.13 and 425.134 had been enacted for similar purposes, and therefore concluded the case law excluding elder abuse punitive damage claims from the requirements of Sec. 425.13, which generally requires an early merits showing when a punitive damage claim is made in a medical malpractice case, applied equally to claims against religious organizations.
Writing for the appellate court, Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss disagreed. He explained that Sec. 425.13 only applies to actions arising out of a healthcare provider’s professional negligence.
Perluss further noted that Sec. 425.13 is “limited both by the identity of the defendant and the nature of the plaintiff’s claim,” but that Sec. 425.14 is only limited by the identity of the defendant as a religious organization.
Accordingly, Perluss reasoned, Sec. 425.14’s pretrial-showing-of-merit requirement must be satisfied whenever the defendant is a religious organization, regardless of the nature of the plaintiff’s claim, even when the defendant is also a healthcare organization, and even when Sec. 415.13 does not apply.
He acknowledged that religious healthcare providers were thereby being afforded greater protection from punitive damage claims than secular healthcare providers, but concluded “[w]hatever the merits of that differentiation between religious not-for-profit entities and their secular counterparts, that is precisely what the Legislature intended.”
Justices Fred Woods and Laurie D. Zelon joined Perluss in his opinion.
Daniel K. Dik, who represented the healthcare corporation, said he client was pleased with the decision and that “after today, it’s pretty clear that religious organizations…are protected against punitive damages regardless of the claim against them.”
Dik elaborated that the appellate court’s holding will not prevent plaintiffs from ever getting punitive damages from a religious organization, but only limits the situations in which a “clever attorney could write a complaint seeking multi-millions in punitive damages to force a settlement.”
Co-counsel Cecille L. Hester agreed with the court’s distinction between religious and secular healthcare corporations because the religious corporations’ operation of a healthcare facility is a “charitable, benevolent act.”
“I think you can draw a distinction between for-profit and non-profit groups for the same reasons.”
Peter J. McNulty and Brett L. Rosenthal of the McNulty Law Firm, who represented Marin, could not be reached for comment.
The case is Little Company of Mary Hospital v. Superior Court (Marin), 08 S.O.S. 2333.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company