Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Middle Ground for Tort Reform

As the issue heats up in Sacramento, extremes should be avoided

May 11, 1997

The California Supreme Court's unanimous decision last week on pain and suffering awards applies to a rather limited set of cases. But as the legislative tort wars heat up again in Sacramento, the court's decision is nonetheless a broad reminder that a key goal of the tort system still is to compensate people found to have suffered injury or damage.

In a 7-0 decision, the court ruled that an award for pain and suffering survives even if the plaintiff dies while the trial judgment is on appeal. The case involved the family of an HIV-positive Delta Airlines reservation agent who claimed damages after he was fired in 1991. The jury awarded the plaintiff $275,000 for emotional distress, but he died of AIDS in 1995 while the case was on appeal. In a surprising ruling last year, the appellate court threw out the jury award, arguing that a 1992 change to the Code of Civil Procedure precluded any recovery of emotional distress damages by survivors if the plaintiff died during the appeal.

The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the common law rule that tort claims die with the plaintiff applies only if death occurs before judgment. For the better part of this century, the justices said, California courts have held that a plaintiff's death does not wipe out a judgment once it has been entered.

To have decided otherwise would give defendants a perverse incentive to delay through appeals or other avenues until victorious plaintiffs--especially in cases involving AIDS and exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos--simply died. Unfortunately, that has sometimes happened.

This sensible ruling comes as business groups and plaintiff lawyers are suiting up for battle again in Sacramento. Each camp has a host of bills. Some would cap punitive damage awards and limit wrongful job-termination compensation. Others would lift the existing cap on medical malpractice awards in specific instances and strengthen insurance bad-faith laws. Once again, the debate is certain to be dominated less by fact than by horror stories--about frivolous claims on the one hand and corporate malfeasance on the other.

Last year, tort "reformers" and the plaintiffs lobby bankrolled a flurry of confusing initiatives on the March and November ballots. Voters rejected most of them. Apparently voters, like the members of the Supreme Court, are understandably wary of radical change. Legislators should be as well.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|