On November 6, 1996, the people of the State of California passed Proposition 213. The provisions of Proposition 213 are embodied in the Civil Code Sections 3333.3 and 3333.4. Civil Code Section 3333.3 prohibits a person from recovering any damages if the injured person's injuries were in any way proximately caused by the injured person's committing of any felony or immediate flight therefrom and that person is convicted of that felony. Civil Code Section 3333.4 restricts owners and operators of motor vehicles injured in a motor vehicle accident from recovering non-economic losses for compensation for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other non-pecuniary damages if the injured person was not insured at the time of the accident as required by the Financial Responsibility Laws of the State of California, or if the injured person was driving under the influence and was convicted of that offense. Such a person, however, although uninsured, may recover such damages if at the time of the accident that person was injured by another who was convicted of driving under the influence.
The law took effect on November 6, 1996 and pertains to all claims which have not proceeded to trial as of January 1, 1997.
A Barrage of Litigation
Almost immediately after the election, the Plaintiff's bar went to work to attack these statutes. The constitutionality of Civil Code Section 3333.4 has been ruled on by at least five separate judges, in five separate cases, at the trial court level that we are aware of. Several trial courts have found portions of the statute unconstitutional (Castillo v. Espinoza, San Francisco Superior Court Case Number 962400; Hurtado v. Dong, Los Angeles County Superior Court Case Number VC020693; Congress of California Seniors v. Quackenbush, San Francisco County Superior Court Case Number 9383314). One court has found that the statute was constitutional and enforceable (Steving v. Municipal Court of the County of San Joaquin, San Joaquin Superior Court Case Number CV001582 - this case stems from a San Joaquin Municipal Court case in which the Municipal Court struck down the ballot measure as unconstitutional - Vo v. Miller Municipal Court Case Number SV19739).
Judge Cahill's Decision
In the most publicized case, on April 4, 1997, Superior Court Judge William Cahill in Congress of California Seniors v. Quackenbush granted plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction enjoining the defendants (including the California Insurance Commissioner) from any expenditures of state funds or resources for the purposes of implementing Civil Code Sections 3333.4(a) (2), (3) and subsection (b). Essentially, the court let stand only those provisions of Proposition 213 that prohibit drunk drivers from suing for pain and suffering when they are injured while driving and the provision blocking felons from suing for negligence if they are injured while committing their crime.
The other provisions of the initiative applying to motor vehicle owners and operators who are uninsured, the court declared, violated the Equal Protection Clause of both the State and Federal Constitutions. Judge Cahill, in support of his decision, noted that convicted
"felons are denied pain and suffering damages only if their injuries were proximately caused by the felony or immediate flight (Civil Code Section 3333.3). Uninsured motorists, who are not committing any felony (driving without insurance is an infraction), are completely prohibited from recovering those damages, even if their infraction is completely unrelated, much less a proximate cause of their injuries. Proposition 213's provision giving more rights to fleeing felons than to innocent uninsured motorists arbitrarily distinguishes between these two groups of citizens and serves no legitimate state purpose and is therefore unconstitutional as a violation of the Equal Protection rights available to all citizens."
The same court rejected the defendant's arguments (which were based upon the findings and declaration of purpose of Proposition 213) that the Proposition combats "skyrocketing" insurance costs; furthers the objectives of California's Financial Responsibility Laws; and "restores balance to our justice system by limiting the right to sue of criminals, drunk drivers and uninsured motorists."
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the courts' decisions, the legal effect of the declarations by various Superior Court judges that certain provisions of Proposition 213 are unconstitutional, must be considered by defense counsel, insurance carriers, and insurance claim adjusters when addressing insurance claims and litigation involving issues covered by Proposition 213.
The above mentioned Superior Court rulings are only binding upon the parties involved in those lawsuits and are not binding in any other case filed in any jurisdiction in the State of California. The constitutionality of the statute will not be resolved until there has been a reported decision at the Appellate Court level. The Superior Court's decision in Congress of California Seniors v. Quackenbush in issuing the preliminary injunction, however, may have the effect of being influential with other Superior Court judges who are similarly persuaded that certain portions of the Proposition are unconstitutional. The First District Court of Appeal in Congress of California Seniors v. Quackenbush will most likely hold oral argument in August of 1997. The court will have 90 days from the conclusion of oral argument to issue its written opinion. Other appeals in less publicized cases are also pending.
Most, if not all, defense counsel, insurance carriers, and insurance claim's adjusters will continue to apply the provisions of Proposition 213 until there has been a reported decision of the merits by a Court of Appeal ruling on the constitutionality of the statute. Until then, however, one must be prepared to address the Constitutional challenges, which will certainly be raised at the trial court level, on a case by case basis. In each case, it should be determined whether the injured claimant was properly insured, whether the injured claimant was convicted for driving under the influence, or whether the claimant's injuries were proximately caused while committing a felony (for which he or she was convicted) or the immediate flight therefrom as Proposition 213 requires.
We will provide a copy of Proposition 213 and Civil Code Sections 3333.3 and 3333.4 as well as the written opinion in Congress of California Seniors v. Quackenbush for anyone who requests a copy. If you have any questions, please contact David Olson.