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Heirs Can Get Jury Awards, Court Says

Law: State justices rule that compensation can be passed to others when litigants die during appeal of their cases.

May 06, 1997|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — In a victory for asbestos victims, AIDS patients and other terminally ill litigants, the California Supreme Court decided Monday that jury awards for pain and suffering can be passed on to the heirs of plaintiffs who die while their cases are on appeal.

The unanimous decision will have ramifications for many personal injury plaintiffs, including the elderly and those suffering from life-threatening diseases. Plaintiffs who sue asbestos makers and cigarette companies often die while their cases languish in appeals courts.

Now, the heirs of the victims will be able to collect millions of dollars that juries had awarded in noneconomic damages, which include money for emotional distress, disfigurement and humiliation.

"It's a huge ruling for AIDS victims and a huge ruling for asbestos victims," said attorney Harry F. Wartnick, who represented Asbestos Victims of America and the National White Lung Assn. in the case. "For asbestos victims, who often have only six months to a year [after diagnosis] to live, the lawsuit is often the only way they can guarantee the financial security of their wives and families."

The state Supreme Court overturned a 1996 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that said awards for noneconomic damages need not be paid if the person who brought the lawsuit and won at trial dies before appeals are resolved. Before that ruling, these awards usually remained intact if they withstood appeals and as long as the trial judge had rendered the judgment before the plaintiff's death.

The Court of Appeal ruling, by delaying final judgment until appeals were resolved, would have encouraged corporate defendants to stall by filing frivolous appeals, plaintiffs lawyers argued.

Already, dying plaintiffs engage in races to the courthouse to complete trials and win verdicts before death so their families can receive their noneconomic damages. Some lawyers contend that defendants often try to drag out cases brought by the terminally ill in the expectation that they will not have to pay all the damages if the plaintiff dies.

"The clarification of this issue is of enormous importance to terminally ill and elderly plaintiffs," said Ralph C. Petersen, the trial lawyer for the plaintiff in the case before the state high court. "We don't know how many other plaintiffs might have been discouraged, how many other cases might have been settled with HIV clients or clients suffering from asbestos who were concerned about the recoverability of damages."

Petersen represented Joseph A. Sullivan, a former Delta Air Lines reservation agent who filed a lawsuit alleging that the airline fired him in 1991 because he was HIV-positive. A jury awarded Sullivan $275,000 for emotional distress after finding that the airline had violated his privacy and fired him unfairly. Sullivan died at age 39, while his case was before the Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

The state Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Stanley Mosk, said that Sullivan's death did not automatically invalidate the award, clearing the way for Sullivan's mother to inherit the damages if they are upheld on appeal.

The law says pain and suffering damages remain intact if the plaintiff dies "after judgment." After judgment, Mosk wrote, means after the case has been resolved at the trial court, not after appeals have been exhausted.

"In its most fundamental sense, 'finality' is an attribute of every judgment at the moment it is rendered," Mosk wrote. "Indeed, if a judicial determination is not immediately 'final' in this sense it is not a judgment, no matter what it is denominated. . . . Finality in this sense not only makes a judicial determination a judgment, it also makes that judgment appealable."

Gilmore F. Diekmann Jr., an attorney for Delta Air Lines, criticized the ruling as a "classic result-oriented decision" in which the court appeared to decide the conclusion it wanted before examining all the legal evidence.

Delta fired Sullivan because he failed to complete a required rehabilitation program for alcoholism and drug dependency, not because he was HIV-positive, Diekmann said. "Delta has bent over backward in virtually every way it can to be sympathetic and understanding to employees who develop HIV or AIDS," the lawyer said.

But Petersen, Sullivan's attorney, said Delta put Sullivan and other employees who either tested positive for HIV or who were suspected of having AIDS "under surveillance," documenting their every absence. Delta officials even announced the names of HIV-infected employees at a management staff meeting at which Sullivan was present, Petersen said.

Dianna Lyons, who represented Sullivan before the California Supreme Court, praised the court's ruling for ensuring that victims' families can collect "millions and millions of dollars" in pain and suffering awards after losing their loved one.

"There would have been a dramatic impact had the Supreme Court failed to correct the law,' she said.

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