Monday, August 10, 2020
California Supreme Court:
Decision Restores $8 Million Award, Pared by Court of Appeal to $4.8 Million
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court held yesterday that a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy is jointly liable for the entire $8 million jury award of noneconomic damages in a wrongful death action notwithstanding a jury finding that he was only 20 percent at fault, declaring that there is no apportionment of damages where a tort is intentional.
The opinion by Justice Ming W. Chin, for a unanimous court, reverses a July 10, 2018 decision by Div. Three of this district’s Court of Appeal which limited the award against Deputy Sheriff David Aviles to 20 percent of the $8 million, ordered that judgment be entered against another deputy for 40 percent of the total award, and sliced $3.2 million from it based on fault on the part of the decedent.
Justice Anne H. Egerton said in Div. Three’s opinion:
“We agree with Defendants that Civil Code section 1431.2 mandates allocation of the noneconomic damages award in proportion to each defendant’s comparative fault, notwithstanding the jury’s finding of intentional misconduct.”
That section provides:
“Each defendant shall be liable only for the amount of non-economic damages allocated to that defendant in direct proportion to that defendant’s percentage of fault.”
The statute, Liu wrote, is applicable only in actions for negligence or strict liability.
In essence, yesterday’s holding means that the County of Los Angeles must pay the full $8 million rather than $4.8 million.
Yesterday’s decision comes in a case brought by three sets of plaintiffs based on the 2012 death of Darren Burley. Sheriff’s deputies had been called to respond to an assault in Compton, where a woman accused Burley of attacking her.
Deputies used Taser guns and punched Burley several times to subdue him. Aviles pinned Burley to the ground by “pressing one knee into the center of his back” and “another knee down the back of his head, near the back of his neck,” Chin recited.
Burley remained pinned to the ground until his body went limp. He died 10 days later, never regaining consciousness.
A jury found that Aviles had committed a battery against Burley and used unreasonable force. It determined that Aviles was 20 percent responsible for Burley’s death, Burley himself was 40 percent to blame, and the other sheriff’s deputies were 40 percent at fault.
Voters in June, 1986, enacted Proposition 51 which, among other things, created Sec. 1431.2. Chin noted:
“[D]ecisions before Proposition 51’s adoption uniformly held that reduced liability under principles of comparative fault is not available to defendants liable for intentional torts.”
That was not changed by voter approval of the initiative, he said.
“Published appellate authority after Proposition 5l’s adoption similarly held that intentional tortfeasors may not obtain reduction of their liability under principles of comparative fault.”
Chin went on to declare:
“…California principles of comparative fault have never required or authorized the reduction of an intentional tortfeasor’s liability based on the acts of others. Because section 1431.2, subdivision (a), incorporates those ‘principles of comparative fault,’ we agree with plaintiffs that the statute does not entitle Aviles to reduce his liability based on the acts of Burley or the other defendants.”
Unfairness Not Explained
He went on to comment that the defendants fail to explain how it would be “unfair” or “inequitable” for the law “to treat those who intentionally commit tortious acts differently from those who act negligently or whose responsibility arises from principles of strict liability.”
In a footnote, the jurist remarked:
“Burley was African American. We are cognizant that the facts of this case bear similarities to well-publicized incidents in which African Americans have died during encounters with police. These incidents raise deeply troubling and difficult issues involving race and the use of police force. But the question plaintiffs raise in this case—whether and how section 1431.2 applies to intentional tortfeasors—does not turn upon either the decedent’s race or the fact that a law enforcement officer, rather than a civilian, committed the intentional tort.”
Justice Goodwin Liu wrote a concurring opinion, in which Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar joined. He said:
“Darren Burley was Black. By happenstance, we heard oral argument in this case one week after another Black man, George Floyd, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck with the full weight of his body for 8 minutes and 46 seconds—an incident that galvanized protests in every state across the country and throughout the world….In all likelihood, the only reason Darren Burley is not a household name is that his killing was not caught on videotape as Floyd’s was.
“Sadly, what happened to these men is not happenstance. Variants of this fact pattern have occurred with distressing frequency throughout the country and here in California.”
“Today’s opinion holds that Civil Code section 1431.2 does not permit an intentional tortfeasor to offset liability for noneconomic damages based on the negligence of other actors….Thus, Burley’s family may recover the full amount of their noneconomic damages. But even as the wrongful death judgment here affords a measure of monetary relief to Burley’s family, it does not acknowledge the troubling racial dynamics that have resulted in state-sanctioned violence, including lethal violence, against Black people throughout our history to this very day.”
“A wrongful death judgment with substantial damages is one way of affirming the worth and dignity of Darren Burley’s life, and I join today’s opinion. But the racial dimensions of this case should not escape our notice. How are we to ensure that ‘the promise of equal justice under law is, for all our people, a living truth’?”
The case is B.B. v. County of Los Angeles, 2020 S.O.S. 3678.
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