Tuesday, July 23, 2019
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court held yesterday that a trial court was not obliged to reconsider its decision to apply the law of another state based on the sole defendant residing in that state having settled the action against it.
The opinion for a unanimous court, by Justice Ming Chin, reverses a decision of Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal and validates a ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger.
Ten Chinese nationals were injured—two fatally—when a bus in which they were riding on a trip to the Grand Canyon rolled over. The accident was attributed to negligence on the part of the bus driver.
Eight injured passengers and survivors of the two who died sued in Los Angeles Superior Court based on the residency of the tour bus company, TBE, and the seller of the bus to TBE, Buswest.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Holly E. Kendig—who handled the case before it was moved to Czuleger—opted to apply the law of Indiana, where the manufacturer of the bus, Starcraft. is located. That state does not recognize strict products liability.
After Starcraft settled (as did TBE), Czuleger denied requests to apply California law, and there was a defense verdict.
The Court of Appeal reversed, in a Div. Eight opinion by Acting Presiding Justice Lawrence Rubin (now presiding justice of Div. Five), who wrote:
“Considering the governmental interests at stake in this products liability case, we conclude that California has an interest in applying its laws, while Indiana does not. Therefore, the trial court erred in applying Indiana products liability law.…[W] e conclude that the error was prejudicial, in that it is reasonably probable that plaintiffs would have prevailed had California law been applied.”
Disagreeing, Chin said:
“After Starcraft’s exit, it is certainly understandable (if not predictable) that the issue of California’s interest would again come to the fore. However, plaintiffs fail to persuade us that their decision to accept Starcraft’s settlement offer, in and of itself, required the trial court to revisit its ruling. After plaintiffs sued both Starcraft and Buswest as joint tortfeasors, plaintiffs later chose whether and when to settle with the Indiana-based manufacturer. That is not to say we consider the settlement (which Judge Kendig found was made in good faith), along with plaintiffs’ subsequent dismissal of Starcraft, to be part of a strategy to revisit the choice of law issue. Rather, we simply observe that because plaintiffs were fully aware of the settlement, they are hard-pressed to argue any unfairness due to any consequence arising from the settlement.”
He went on to declare:
“[G]iven the importance of determining the choice of law early on in a case—to enable trial courts to manage proceedings in an orderly and efficient fashion—we conclude that circumstances in which trial courts are required to revisit a choice of law determination, if any. should be the exception and not the rule. On that note, we underscore that we do not reach the question whether trial courts may revisit a prior choice of law ruling. Nor do we opine that there are no circumstances under which the trial court would be obligated to reconsider the choice of law. We hold only that, in this case, plaintiffs fail to demonstrate that their decision to accept a settlement offer from one defendant constitutes such an exceptional circumstance.”
The case is Chen v. Los Angeles Truck Centers, LLC, 2019 S.O.S. 3485
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