Thursday, July 2, 2015
C.A. Clarifies Exception to Five-Year Statute for Stipulated Delay
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A defendant who agrees to a trial date beyond the general five-year limit for bringing a civil case need not specifically waive the time limit in order for a statutory exception to the limit to apply, the Third District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The court Tuesday reversed a San Joaquin Superior Court judge’s order dismissing Rosa Elena Munoz’s suit against the City of Tracy.
Munoz, then a minor, sued the city after being injured by a falling tree branch at one of its parks. The complaint for negligence and premises liability was filed Dec. 3, 2008.
The case went to nonbinding judicial arbitration, where an award was made in favor of the city. The plaintiff made a timely request for trial de novo.
The city moved for summary judgment, which was denied. The case was then set to be tried on Jan. 14, 2013, but was continued twice by written stipulation, first to Oct. 28, 2013, and then to June 16, 2014.
The last stipulation did not reference the five-year statute, either by number or description.
On Jan. 6, 2014, the city moved to dismiss on the ground that more than five years had elapsed since the complaint was filed. The plaintiff responded that the defendant had waived the five-year limit under Code of Civil Procedure §583.330, which permits an extension of the time limit by stipulation, which must be in writing or made orally in open court.
The defense argued that the exception did not apply because it had not waived its rights under the statute in express terms.
Judge Linda Lofthus agreed, explaining:
“You have to say—it is the plaintiff’s duty to say we need to continue this case to next April because our attorney can’t do it because he’s got—his wife is having a baby; he has two conflicts in his schedule. Then you need to say this is going to be beyond the five-year statute; do you waive that. And that’s what didn’t happen in this case. That’s a problem.”
Justice Renner’s Opinion
But Justice Jonathan K. Renner said that no such specificity was required.
Section 583.330, the justice noted, requires no particular formalities for a stipulation extending the five-year date. And in determining whether the statute’s requirements have been met, he said, the court must be guided by §583.130, which says “the policy favoring the right of parties to make stipulations in their own interests and the policy favoring trial or other disposition of an action on the merits are generally to be preferred over the policy that requires dismissal for failure to proceed with reasonable diligence in the prosecution of an action in construing the provisions of this chapter.”
Renner cited Miller & Lux. Inc. v. Superior Court (1923) 192 Cal. 333, a case in which the parties entered into a series of stipulations continuing the trials of three related actions, following which the trial court on its own motion continued the trials to a date beyond the five-year limit.
‘Postponing the Case’
Although the high court held that the five-year statute mandated dismissal, it noted that a “stipulation expressly waiving the benefit of [the predecessor statute] or postponing the case to a time beyond the statutory period, would have the effect of extending the statutory period to the date to which the trial was postponed.”
Renner said the differences between the current statute and its predecessor are not so great as to mandate a different result. He added that a number of Court of Appeal cases have held a stipulation to a specific date sufficient to create an exception to the five-year limit.
Under the facts of the case, he added, requiring the city to defend itself at trial on a date to which its attorneys specifically agreed is a fair result and consistent with the policy of having cases decided on their merits.
The case is Munoz v. City of Tracy, 15 S.O.S. 3370.
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