Burgueno v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal.

Burgueno v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal.
Sixth Appellate District

Adrian was a full-time student at UCSC, living in an off-campus apartment. He commuted to the university on his bicycle, traveling on the Great Meadow Bikeway, a paved bike path that runs through part of the UCSC campus. Constructed in 1973, the purpose of the Bikeway is bicycle transportation to and from the central campus that is separate from automobile traffic. There have been several bicycle accidents on the Bikeway. After Adrian was fatally injured in a bicycle accident on the Bikeway, his family sued, alleging that the Regents of the University of California were liable for Adrian’s death due to the dangerous condition of the Bikeway. The trial court granted the Regents summary judgment on the ground that the action was barred under the recreational trail immunity provided by Government Code section 831.4.2 The court of appeal affirmed, holding that the causes of action for dangerous condition of public property and wrongful death are barred as a matter of law because the Regents have absolute immunity from claims arising from Adrian’s accident.

The Regents argued the bike path “is a trail within the meaning of section 831.4 because section 831.4 has been construed to apply to a paved bike path that, like the Great Meadow Bikeway, is used directly for recreational activity or scenic viewing, or provides access to recreational activity or scenic viewing. For that reason, the Regents contended that the causes of action for dangerous condition of public property and wrongful death failed and summary judgment should be granted.”

Plaintiffs “argued that the motion must be denied because the Great Meadow Bikeway is not a recreational trail within the meaning of section 831.4, and therefore the Regents do not have immunity from plaintiffs’ claims. According to plaintiffs, the evidence shows that the Great Meadow Bikeway is a “major transportation corridor” designed and used for bicycle commuting to the UCSC campus, not recreation. Plaintiffs further argued that any incidental recreational use of the Great American Parkway was insufficient to make it a recreational trail to which trail immunity under section 831.4 applies.”

Section 831.4 provides: “A public entity, public employee, or a grantor of a public easement to a public entity for any of the following purposes, is not liable for an injury caused by a condition of:

(a) Any unpaved road which provides access to fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, riding, including animal and all types of vehicular riding, water sports, recreational or scenic areas and which is not a (1) city street or highway or (2) county, state or federal highway or (3) public street or highway of a joint highway district, boulevard district, bridge and highway district or similar district formed for the improvement or building of public streets or highways.

(b) Any trail used for the above purposes.

(c) Any paved trail, walkway, path, or sidewalk on an easement of way which has been granted to a public entity, which easement provides access to any unimproved property, so long as such public entity shall reasonably attempt to provide adequate warnings of the existence of any condition of the paved trail, walkway, path, or sidewalk which constitutes a hazard to health or safety. Warnings required by this subdivision shall only be required where pathways are paved, and such requirement shall not be construed to be a standard of care for any unpaved pathways or roads.

HELD

In the present case, the evidence shows that it is undisputed that the Great Meadow Bikeway is primarily used for its intended purpose as a route for bicycle commuting to and from the UCSC campus. It is also undisputed that the Great Meadow Bikeway is used for recreation. In their response to the Regents’ separate statement of undisputed material facts, plaintiffs state: “UNDISPUTED that, although the admitted ‘purpose’ of the Great Meadow bike path is to facilitate students commuting via bicycle to/from the USCS main campus and that it is primarily used for such purpose, some bicyclists may utilize the Great Meadow bike path for recreation.” Since the Great Meadow Bikeway has mixed uses that undisputedly include recreation, the Regents have trail immunity under section 831.4, subdivision (b) from claims, such as the plaintiffs’ claims, that arise from the condition of the Great Meadow Bikeway. (See Hartt, supra, 197 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1399-1400; Montenegro, supra, 215 Cal.App.4th at p. 932.)

Moreover, plaintiffs do not dispute the evidence showing that recreational bicyclists used the Great Meadow Bikeway as part of their route to access the mountain biking paths in the redwood forests above the UCSC campus. Section 831.4 has been construed to apply to bike paths that, like the Great Meadow Bikeway, provide access to recreational activities. (See, e.g., Armenio, supra, 28 Cal.App.4th at pp. 417-418.)

For these reasons, we determine that the causes of action for dangerous condition of public property and wrongful death are barred as a matter of law because the Regents have absolute immunity from claims arising from Adrian’s tragic accident on the Great Meadow Bikeway pursuant to section 831.4. We therefore conclude that the trial court did not err in granting the Regents’ motion for summary judgment, and we will affirm the judgment.

Note: “The fact that a trail has a dual use—recreational and nonrecreational—does not undermine section 831.4, subdivision (b) immunity.”

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Rosas v. BASF Corporation

Rosas v. BASF Corporation

Second Appellate District
Filed May 21, 2015

Delayed Discovery Rule in Toxic Tort Cases

Plaintiff and appellant Ismael Rosas appealed from judgments entered after the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants and respondents BASF Corporation and other company’s that manufactured certain chemicals to which plaintiff alleges he was exposed.

The trial court concluded that a two-year statute of limitations began to run on Rosas’s claims in 2003, because the undisputed evidence demonstrated he was hospitalized with an unknown disease that he suspected was caused by exposure to a particular chemical at his work in a food flavoring plant.  The Court of Appeal concluded the evidence is susceptible to more than one legitimate inference, and that it is a question of fact for the jury to determine whether the facts known to Rosas before November 2006 were enough to put a reasonable person on inquiry notice that his lung disease was caused by the wrongful act of another.

The case serves as an affirmation of the delayed discovery rule first articulated in the Norgart v. Upjohn Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 383 and Jolly v. Eli Lilly & Co. (1988) 44 Cal.3d 1103.  The touchstone for accrual of the statute of limitations is “suspicion of wrongdoing.”

“An important exception to the general rule of accrual is the ‘discovery rule,’ which postpones accrual of a cause of action until the plaintiff discovers, or has reason to discover, the cause of action. [Citations.] [¶] A plaintiff has reason to discover a cause of action when he or she ‘has reason at least to suspect a factual basis for its elements.’ [Citations.]” (Id. at p. 807.) A potential plaintiff “discovers the cause of action when he at least suspects a factual basis, as opposed to a legal theory, for its elements, even if he lacks knowledge thereof—when, simply put, he at least ‘suspects . . . that someone hasdone something wrong’ to him [citation], ‘wrong’ being used, not in any technical sense,but rather in accordance with its ‘lay understanding’ [citation].” (Norgart v. Upjohn Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 383, 397-398 (Norgart), fn. omitted.)

The discovery rule only delays accrual until the plaintiff has, or should have, inquiry notice of the cause of action. The discovery rule does not encourage dilatory tactics because plaintiffs are charged with presumptive knowledge of an injury if they have ‘“‘information of circumstances to put [them] on inquiry’”’ or if they have ‘“‘the opportunity to obtain knowledge from sources open to [their] investigation.’”’ [Citations.]” (Fox, supra, 35 Cal.4th at pp. 807-808, fn. omitted.) “A plaintiff need not be aware of the specific ‘facts’ necessary to establish the claim; that is a process contemplated by pretrial discovery. Once the plaintiff has a suspicion of wrongdoing, and therefore an incentive to sue, she must decide whether to file suit or sit on her rights. So long as a suspicion exists, it is clear that the plaintiff must go find the facts; she cannot wait for the facts to find her.” (Jolly, supra, 44 Cal.3d at p. 1111.) Statutes of limitation serve two potentially competing purposes. First, they “give defendants reasonable repose, that is, to protect parties from defending stale claims.” (Id. at p. 1112.) Second, they “require plaintiffs to diligently pursue their claims.” (Ibid.) The discovery rule strikes a balance between the two purposes. “Because a plaintiff is under a duty to reasonably investigate and because a suspicion of wrongdoing, coupled with a knowledge of the harm and its cause, will commence the limitations period, suits are not likely to be unreasonably delayed, and those failing to act with reasonable dispatch will be barred. At the same time, plaintiffs who file suit as soon as they have reason to believe that they are entitled to recourse will not be precluded.” (Ibid., fn. omitted.)

Cline v. Homuth

 

Cline v. Homuth

Court: California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District
Opinion Date: March 30, 2015

Areas of Law: Contracts, Insurance Law, Injury Law

Plaintiff Ronald Lee Cline was severely injured when his motorcycle collided with a turning car driven by a teenager with a provisional license. He settled with the driver and the driver’s parents for their $100,000 insurance policy limit. Cline executed a release that released the driver and his parents “and any other person, corporation, association, or partnership responsible in any manner or degree” for the accident. Cline subsequently sued defendant Berniece Delores Homuth, the driver’s grandmother and the sole adult in the car with him at the time of the collision, for negligent supervision. Homuth raised the release as an affirmative defense. She moved for summary judgment; the trial court denied the motion. A court trial followed, centering on the validity of the release and whether Homuth was an intended third party beneficiary of the release. Relying on Rodriguez v. Oto (2013) 212 Cal.App.4th 1020, the trial court found the release “unambiguously expresses a mutual intent to benefit a class of persons of which [Homuth] is a member” and that Homuth was entitled to enforce it. Cline appealed the judgment in favor of Homuth, arguing the extrinsic evidence demonstrated that Homuth was not an intended beneficiary of the release. The Court of Appeal affirmed, finding that Cline failed to provide sufficient evidence to counter Homuth’s showing that she was an intended beneficiary of the release.

“A third party may enforce a contract that is expressly made for his benefit. (Civ. Code, § 1559.) The third party need not be named in the contract, but he has the burden to show the contracting parties intended to benefit him. (Garcia v. Truck Ins. Exchange (1984) 36 Cal.3d 426, 436.) Determining this intent is a question of contract interpretation. (Ibid.) “In determining the meaning of a written contract allegedly made, in part, for the benefit of a third party, evidence of the circumstances and negotiations of the parties in making the contract is both relevant and admissible. And, ‘[i]n the absence of grounds for estoppel, the contracting parties should be allowed to testify as to their actual intention . . . .’ [Citations.]” (Id. at p. 437.)”

A reading of the opinion wherein numerous “release the world” cases were analyzed by the court, lead the court to affirm the judgment by the trial court that Cline presented insufficient evidence in the subject release’s negotiated circumstances to demonstrate that the “parties” did not intend that Homuth would be excluded from the release’s broad “and any other person, corporation, association, or partnership responsible in any manner or degree” for the accident language.

Anyone interested in this area of the law should read the entirety of the opinion for a comprehensive primer on when and when not a broadly worded general release will indeed release a later sued “person” or “corporation.”

Fazio v. Fairbanks Ranch Country Club

 

Primary Assumption of Risk – “Inherent Occupational Hazards”

Fazio v. Fairbanks Ranch Country Club (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 1053

Fazio, a professional musician, filed a lawsuit against Fairbanks claiming negligence after he fell from a stage on Fairbanks’s property before a performance. Fairbanks argued in its motion for summary judgment, among other things, that as a musician who regularly performed on stage Fazio assumed the risk of falling. On appeal, Fazio claims the trial court erred by granting Fairbanks’s motion because a triable issue of fact exists as to whether Fairbanks constructed the stage in a way that unreasonably increased the risk of falling.

“In Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight), the Supreme Court considered the proper application of the assumption of risk doctrine in light of its adoption of comparative fault principles in Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804. The court “distinguished between (1) primary assumption of risk—‘those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is “no duty” on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk’—and (2) secondary assumption of risk—‘those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.’ [Citation.] Primary assumption of risk, when applicable, completely bars the plaintiff’s recovery. [Citation.] The doctrine of secondary assumption of risk, by contrast, ‘is merged into the comparative fault scheme, and the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibility of the parties.’ ” (Cheong v. Antablin (1997) 16 Cal.4th 1063, 1067–1068, citing Knight, supra, at pp. 308, 314–315.) Although it addressed the assumption of the risk doctrine in the context of sports activities, Knight “provided an analytical framework for evaluating” the doctrine “in other contexts.” (Huffman v. City of Poway (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 975, 994.) Primary assumption of the risk applies when the court, “after examining the nature of the particular activity and the parties’ relationship to that activity, concludes that a plaintiff engaged in the particular activity is harmed by the risks inherent in the activity.” (Id. at p. 994.) When the risks are inherent, the defendant does not have a “duty to protect the plaintiff from those risks [citation] or to take steps to reduce those risks.”

Inherent Occupational Hazards

“[T]he primary assumption of the risk doctrine is not limited to recreational activities… the doctrine has been applied “to other activities involving an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants … where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity.” (Beninati v. Black Rock City, LLC (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 650, 658; Nunez v. R’bibo (1989) 211 Cal.App.3d 559, 563 [applying assumption of the risk to gardener who fell from ladder while trimming tree].) “Primary assumption of risk cases often involve recreational activity, but the doctrine also governs claims arising from inherent occupational hazards.”]; Priebe v. Nelson (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1112, 1116 [applying doctrine to bar kennel worker’s claim against dog owner]; and Saville v. Sierra College (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 857, 867–868 [applying doctrine to student injured while practicing takedown maneuvers in police officer training course].)

“Although defendants generally have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself, it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport.” (Knight, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 315–316.) Likewise, when the doctrine is applied outside the sports context [Inherent Occupational Hazards], summary judgment on primary assumption of risk grounds is unavailable unless the defendant disproves the theory it increased the inherent risks, or establishes a lack of causation between its conduct and the plaintiff’s injury. (Campbell v. Derylo, at p. 830, 89; Lowe v. California League of Prof. Baseball (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 112, 123.)

The Court held: “We agree with Fairbanks that falling off stage is an inherent risk for all stage performers… That risk “cannot be eliminated entirely without altering the fundamental nature” of performing on stage. (Beninati v. Black Rock City, LLC, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 658.) As a result, Fairbanks was under no duty to protect Fazio from this inherent risk.

Defendant Increasing the inherent risk involved in the activity – Question of Law or Fact?

“Court of Appeal decisions addressing the determination of whether increased risk is a legal question for the court or a factual one for the jury conflict.” The Court analyzed the numerous cases, with a special emphasis on the Supreme Court case of Shin v. Ahn (2007) 42 Cal.4th 482: “[T]he California Supreme Court addressed the analogous question of whether the trier of fact or the court, as a matter of law, determines if a defendant has breached a limited duty of care by engaging in reckless conduct outside the range of activity for which the plaintiff assumed the risk. (Id. at pp. 488–489.) Shin affirmed the denial of a motion for summary judgment by a golfer who struck another player with a stray ball. The court held the primary assumption of the risk doctrine was applicable to the sport of golf, but also concluded that (“golfers have a limited duty of care to other players, breached only if they intentionally injure them or engage in conduct that is so ‘reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.’ ”Id. at p. 497.) The court held summary judgment was properly denied on the record before it, which was “too sparse to support a finding, as a matter of law, that defendant did, or did not, act recklessly.” (Id. at p. 500.) The court then concluded the “jury will ultimately resolve [the question] based on a more complete examination of the facts.” (Ibid.)

The Fazio Court, thus, held: “In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shin, we conclude as the Luna court did, that resolving the question of whether Fairbanks increased the risk of falling is properly decided by the trier of fact. This question “is not a matter of further defining [Fairbanks’s] duty, which would be a question of law for the court. Rather, it requires application of the governing standard of care (the duty not to increase the [inherent risks] ) to the facts of this particular case—the traditional role of the trier of fact.” (Luna, 169 Cal.App.4th at p. 112.)

J.P.P. Inv. Partners V. Fair

  • First District
  • 12/05/14
  • Enforcing Settlement Agreements

To enforce settlements the agreements must be signed by the parties. What about settlements consummated via email and the evolving issue of electronic signatures?

The trial court granted a motion to enforce a settlement between plaintiffs and defendants. The trial court found that defendant Fair’s printed name at the end of his email where he had agreed to settlement terms set forth in an email from plaintiffs’ counsel was an “electronic signature” within the meaning of California’s Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (Civ. Code, 1633.1) and what it referred to as the “common law of contract” or “contract case law.” The court of appeal reversed the order enforcing the settlement: the agreement was not signed by plaintiffs and the trial court erred in determining that Fair’s printed name at the end of his email was enforceable. Since plaintiffs are not the prevailing party, they are not entitled to attorney fees.

“Code of Civil Procedure section 664.6 provides: “If parties to pending litigation stipulate, in a writing signed by the parties outside the presence of the court . . . for settlement of the case, or part thereof, the court, upon motion, may enter judgment pursuant to the terms of the settlement.” “Because of its summary nature, strict compliance with the requirements of [Code of Civil Procedure] section 664.6 is prerequisite to invoking the power of the court to impose a settlement agreement.” (Sully-Miller Contracting Co. v. Gledson/Cashman Construction, Inc. (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 30, 37 (Sully-Miller).) Settlement of a lawsuit implicates a substantial right of the litigants; therefore, the Supreme Court has concluded that “parties” in Code of Civil Procedure section 664.6 means the litigants personally and does not include their attorneys of record (Levy v. Superior Court (1995) 10 Cal.4th 578, 584, 586), even if the parties expressly authorized the agent to enter into a settlement on their behalf (see Gauss v. GAF Corp. (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 1110, 1162-1164). “The litigants’ direct participation tends to ensure that the settlement is the result of their mature reflection and deliberate assent.” (Levy, at p. 585.) Thus, the statute “require[s] the signatures of the parties seeking to enforce the agreement under [Code of Civil Procedure] section 664.6 and against whom the agreement is sought to be enforced.” (Harris v. Rudin, Richman & Appel (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 299, 305.)”

“Attributing the name on an e-mail to a particular person and determining that the printed name is “[t]he act of [this] person” is a necessary prerequisite but is insufficient, by itself, to establish that it is an “electronic signature.” (§ 1633.9, subd. (a).) As counsel and the court seemed unaware, UETA defines the term “electronic signature.” Subdivision (h) of section 1633.2 states that ” ‘[e]lectronic signature’ means an electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with an electronic record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the electronic record.” (Italics added. See also Cal. Civ. Jury Inst. No. 380 [party suing to enforce an agreement formalized by electronic means must prove “based on the context and surrounding circumstances, including the conduct of the parties, that the parties agreed to use [e.g., e-mail) to formalize their agreement”].)”

“We have independently reviewed the record and conclude, as a matter of law, that it does not show that Fair printed his name at the end of his e-mail with any intent to formalize an electronic transaction. Indeed, substantial evidence in the record refutes such a finding.”

“Whether the parties agree to conduct a transaction by electronic means is determined from the context and surrounding circumstances, including the parties’ conduct. . . .” (§ 1633.5, subd. (b).) The absence of an explicit agreement to conduct the transaction by electronic means is not determinative; however, it is a relevant factor to consider.”

Gottschall V. Crane Co.

  • First Appellate District
  • 10/22/14
  • Sophisticated User Defense

A concise primer on the “sophisticated user” defense first articulated in Johnson v. American Standard, Inc. (2008) 43 Cal.4th 56:

“Our Supreme Court first endorsed the doctrine of “sophisticated user” in 2008, holding in essence that users of products that could be seen as potentially dangerous cannot hold the producers of those products liable if those users were clearly knowledgeable about the product being used and its potential danger. It was in Johnson, supra, 43 Cal.4th 56, where a unanimous court held as follows: “The sophisticated user defense exempts manufacturers from their typical obligation to provide product users with warnings about the products’ potential hazards. [Citation.] The defense is considered an exception to the manufacturer’s general duty to warn consumers, and therefore, in most jurisdictions, if successfully argued, acts as an affirmative defense to negate the manufacturer’s duty to warn. [Citation.] “Under the sophisticated user defense, sophisticated users need not be warned about dangers of which they are already aware or should be aware. [Citation.] Because these sophisticated users are charged with knowing the particular product’s dangers, the failure to warn about those dangers is not the legal cause of any harm that product may cause. [Citation.] The rationale supporting the defense is that ‘the failure to provide warnings about risks already known to a sophisticated purchaser usually is not a proximate cause of harm resulting from those risks suffered by the buyer’s employees or downstream purchasers.’ (Ibid.) This is because the user’s knowledge of the dangers is the equivalent of prior notice. [Citation.] “As we explain further below, the sophisticated user defense evolved out of the Restatement Second of Torts, section 38

8 (section 388) and the obvious danger rule, an accepted principle and defense in California. [Citations.] In addition . . . the defense applies equally to strict liability and negligent failure to warn cases. The duty to warn is measured by what is generally known or should have been known to the class of sophisticated users, rather than by the individual plaintiff’s subjective knowledge. [Citation.]” (Johnson, supra, 43 Cal.4th at pp. 65-66.)”

Izell V. Union Carbide

  • Second Appellate District
  • 10/22/14
  • Punitive Damages

This is an asbestos related case where much of the discussion focused on aspects of the law unique to asbestos cases. Union Carbide Corporation appeals from a judgment entered in favor of Plaintiffs Bobbie Izell and Helen Izell on claims for personal injuries and loss of consortium stemming from Mr. Izell’s alleged exposure to Union Carbide asbestos and subsequent diagnosis with mesothelioma. After a four-week trial the jury returned special verdicts finding Union Carbide 65 percent comparatively at fault for Plaintiffs’ injuries and awarding Plaintiffs $30 million in compensatory damages plus $18 million in punitive damages against Union Carbide. By remittitur, which Plaintiffs accepted, the trial court reduced the compensatory damage award to $6 million, but declined to disturb the punitive damages. On appeal, Union Carbide contends the evidence was insufficient to support the liability finding, apportionment of comparative fault, and the remitted compensatory damage award. Union Carbide also challenges the punitive damage award as excessive.

The discussion on punitive damages provides a nice encapsulation of the constitutionality of punitive damages:

“Union Carbide argues the punitive damage award is unconstitutionally excessive under two of the three State Farm guideposts-the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s misconduct and the relationship between the punitive damage award and theharm suffered by the plaintiff.”

Degree of reprehensibility

“The degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct is the most important indicator of the reasonableness of a punitive damages award. (State Farm, supra, 538 U.S. at p. 419; Gore, supra, 517 U.S. at p. 575.) In assessing the reprehensibility of a defendant’s conduct, we are to consider whether “[(1)] the harm caused was physical as opposed to economic; [(2)] the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others; [(3)] the target of the conduct had financial vulnerability; [(4)] the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and [(5)] the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident. [Citation.] The existence of any one of these factors weighing in favor of a plaintiff may not be sufficient to sustain a punitive damages award; and the absence of all of them renders any award suspect. It should be presumed a plaintiff has been made whole for his injuries by compensatory damages, so punitive damages should only be awarded if the defendant’s culpability, after having paid compensatory damages, is so reprehensible as to warrant the imposition of further sanctions to achieve punishment or deterrence.” (State Farm, at p. 419.)

Disparity between actual harm and punitive damages

“Due process requires that punitive damages bear a ” ‘reasonable relationship’ ” to the actual or potential harm to the plaintiff. (Gore, supra, 517 U.S. at p. 580.) Thus, “courts must ensure that the measure of punishment is both reasonable and proportionate to the amount of harm to the plaintiff and to the general damages recovered.” (State Farm, supra, 538 U.S. at p. 426.)

The United States Supreme Court has “consistently rejected the notion that the constitutional line is marked by a simple mathematical formula.” (Gore, supra, 517 U.S. at p. 582; State Farm, supra, 538 U.S. at pp. 424-425.) As State Farm explains, the due process limitation is elastic, rather than rigid, and depends on the circumstances:

“[B]ecause there are no rigid benchmarks that a punitive damages award may not surpass, ratios greater than those we have previously upheld may comport with due process where ‘a particularly egregious act has resulted in only a small amount of economic damages.’ [Citations.] The converse is also true, however. When compensatory damages are substantial, then a lesser ratio, perhaps only equal to compensatory damages, can reach the outermost limit of the due process guarantee. The precise award in any case, of course, must be based upon the facts and circumstances of the defendant’s conduct and the harm to the plaintiff.” (State Farm, at p. 425.)”

For California’s take, see also Roby v. McKesson Corp. (2009) 47 Cal.4th 686, in which our Supreme Court concluded a one-to-one ratio between compensatory and punitive damages was the federal constitutional limit where the defendant’s conduct involved a “relatively low degree of reprehensibility” and the compensatory verdict included a substantial award of noneconomic damages. (Id. at p. 719, italics added.)

Lobo V. Tamco

  • Fourth District
  • Filed 9/10/14 certified for partial publication 10/8/14
  • Employer Vicarious Liability

In Lobo v. Tamco (2010) 182 Cal.App.4th 297 (Lobo I), the court reversed a summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Tamco, and remanded the matter for further proceedings in the trial court. Trial was held solely on the issue of Tamco’s vicarious liability for the negligence of its employee, Luis Del Rosario. The jury found in favor of Tamco. Plaintiffs, the survivors of a deputy sheriff killed in a vehicular collision with Del Rosario’s car as he left Tamco’s premises, contend that based on the legal principles enunciated in Lobo I, the evidence adduced at trial compels a finding that Del Rosario was acting within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred. They also argue that the trial court erred in refusing a requested jury instruction. The Court in this opinion affirmed the trial court judgmemt.

Del Rosario was leaving Tamco’s premises. As he drove his car out of the driveway and onto Arrow Highway, he failed to notice three motorcycle deputies approaching with lights and sirens activated. Deputy Lobo was unable to avoid colliding with Del Rosario’s car and suffered fatal injuries.

Tamco filed a motion for summary judgment or summary adjudication of issues, contending that the evidence established as a matter of law that Tamco was not vicariously liable for Deputy Lobo’s death, in that Del Rosario was not acting within the course and scope of his employment, but was merely leaving work at the end of his workday, intending to go home, and was driving his personal vehicle. The trial court granted summary judgment.

FOLLOWING A CONCISE DESCRIPTION OF THE LAW ON COMIMNG AND GOING AND REQUIRED USE EXCEPTION

“Under the theory of respondeat superior, employers are vicariously liable for tortious acts committed by employees during the course and scope of their employment. However, under the ‘going and coming’ rule, employers are generally exempt from liability for tortious acts committed by employees while on their way to and from work because employees are said to be outside of the course and scope of employment during their daily commute. A well-known exception to the going-and-coming rule arises where the use of the car gives some incidental benefit to the employer. Thus, the key inquiry is whether there is an incidental benefit derived by the employer. This exception to the going and coming rule, carved out by this court in Huntsinger v. Glass Containers Corp. (1972) 22 Cal.App.3d, 803, 807, has been referred to as the ‘required-vehicle’ exception. The exception can apply if the use of a personally owned vehicle is either an express or implied condition of employment, or if the employee has agreed, expressly or implicitly, to make the vehicle available as an accommodation to the employer and the employer has ‘reasonably come to reply upon its use and [to] expect the employee to make the vehicle available on a regular basis while still not requiring it as a condition of employment.'”

“The modern view of the basis for respondeat superior is that an employer is responsible for injuries resulting from “‘risks that may fairly be regarded as typical of or broadly incidental to the enterprise [the employer] has undertaken.'” (Hinman v. Westinghouse Elec. Co. (1970) 2 Cal.3d 956, 960 (Hinman).) Accordingly, although we held that infrequency of the use of the vehicle “should not, in and of itself, defeat the plaintiff’s case” (Lobo I, supra, 182 Cal.App.4th at p. 303, italics added), the trier of fact remains free to determine in a particular case that the employee’s use of his or her vehicle was too infrequent to confer a sufficient benefit to the employer so as to make it reasonable to require the employer to bear the cost of the employee’s negligence in operating the vehicle. This is particularly true in the absence of an express requirement that the employee make his or her vehicle available for the employer’s benefit or evidence that the employer actually relied on the availability of the employee’s car to further the employer’s purposes.”