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Prop 51: CA Supreme Court Creates Noteworthy Exception to Reduction or Apportionment of Non-Economic Damages

11/10/20

By: Zachary Price

Under Proposition 51, although all defendants in California are liable to a plaintiff for 100% of plaintiff’s economic damages (including such things as medical expenses and lost earnings), defendants are only liable for noneconomic damages (such as physical pain, mental suffering, and emotional distress) in proportion to their fault. In other words, while defendants are jointly liable for economic damages, they are severally liable for noneconomic damages. 

However, in B.B. v. County of Los Angeles (2020) 10 Cal.5th 1, the California Supreme Court has created a noteworthy exception, holding that intentional tort defendants are categorically exempt from the several liability protections of Proposition 51. As a result, regardless of a defendant’s proportion of fault, if that defendant is found liable for an intentional tort, they are responsible for 100% of plaintiff’s noneconomic damages.

In B.B. v. County of Los Angeles, a jury found that a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy had committed battery by using unreasonable force to subdue a man when the deputy pressed his knees into the man’s back and neck. The man lost consciousness and died 10 days later. The decedent’s family was awarded $8 million in noneconomic damages. The jury found that the deputy was only 20% responsible for the decedent’s death, with 40% responsibility attributable to other deputies and the remainder to the decedent. However, because the deputy’s liability was based on an intentional tort, the trial court entered judgment against the deputy for 100% of the noneconomic damages.          

The appellate court disagreed with the trial court and reduced the judgment against the deputy in proportion to the jury’s allocation of responsibility.  The matter then proceeded to the California Supreme Court. Resolving a split of authority in the appellate courts, the California Supreme Court held that Proposition 51 does not apply to intentional tortfeasors, making the deputy in question liable for the entirety of the $8 million noneconomic damages award. Specifically, the California Supreme Court held that Civil Code section 1431.2(a), which codified Proposition 51, does not authorize a reduction in the liability of intentional tortfeasors for noneconomic damages based on the extent the negligence of others contributed to the injuries in question. “Others” include plaintiffs, codefendants, injured parties, and nonparties.

The California Supreme Court based its decision on the plain language of section 1431.2, which expressly incorporates “principles of comparative fault.” After a thorough discussion of the history of comparative fault in California, the Supreme Court noted that 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 incorporates those principles, the statute did not allow the deputy to reduce his liability for noneconomic damages based on the acts of the decedent or other deputies.     

The California Supreme Court’s decision in B.B. v. County of Los Angeles will have profound ramifications. Armed with this exception to Proposition 51, expect to see an uptick in cases advancing intentional tort theories by the plaintiffs’ bar, particularly in multi-defendant litigation or cases with defendants known to have deep pockets. To avoid potential application of this exception, defense counsel will need to aggressively challenge intentional torts prior to trial through discovery and motion practice.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Zachary Price at [email protected]