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Expanding Plaintiff Rights

March 09, 1986|FRANK CLIFFORD

Over 30 years, the California Supreme Court has gained a national reputation for rulings that expanded the rights of plaintiffs, including accident victims, distraught survivors, fired employees and injured tenants, to recover damages. Since 1977, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird has made a number of contributions to the law governing the rights of victims in civil cases. Several noteworthy examples include:

American Motorcycle Assn. vs. Superior Court (1978)--In a ruling that goes to the heart of a current political controversy, the court affirmed an accident victim's right to recover damages from the wealthiest or most heavily insured of several defendants, even if that defendant is the least at fault. This year, a coalition of businesses and government agencies is sponsoring a ballot initiative that would limit the amount of damages that can be sought from such defendants.

Royal Globe Insurance Co. vs. Superior Court (1980)--The court said an accident victim could take legal action against a defendant's insurance company if the company dealt in "bad faith," in other words, if it refused to satisfy a reasonable claim. Until Royal Globe, only the person insured by the company was entitled to seek damages for bad faith.

Tameny vs. Atlantic Richfield Co. (1980)--The ruling was the latest in a series that expanded the rights of workers to recover damages from their employers for a variety of reasons, including wrongful discharge, infliction of emotional distress and concealment of hazardous working conditions.

Sindell vs. Abbott Laboratories (1980)--In this important ruling, the court said that an entire group of manufacturers could be held liable for a defective product, in this case a cancer-causing drug, that results in an injury to a single plaintiff. The court said that where the plaintiff cannot trace the product to its maker, damages can be sought from all manufacturers responsible for a "substantial market share" of the product.

Seaman's Direct Buying Service Inc. vs. Standard Oil Co. (1984)--In a ruling involving commercial litigation, the court broke new ground by allowing one company in a breach-of-contract dispute to recover damages above and beyond what it would have received had the contract been honored.

Becker vs. IRM Corp. (1985)--In a precedent-setting opinion, the court extended product liability to a landlord after a tenant was injured falling against a shower door made of low-grade glass. The court said the landlord, IRM Corp., could be held responsible even though IRM acquired the apartment 10 years after it had been built and even though there was undisputed testimony that IRM did not know, and could not have easily learned, that the shower door was made of inferior glass.

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