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California and the West

Court Limits Damages for the Uninsured

April 06, 2001|JASON SONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a victory for local governments, the California Supreme Court on Thursday limited the damages uninsured motorists can seek from public entities when they are victims of accidents.

The 5-2 ruling was based on Proposition 213, the 1996 voter initiative that prohibited uninsured drivers from suing for "noneconomic" harm such as pain and suffering. Under the initiative, motorists can obtain compensation only for damages such as wage loss.

The case involved Russell Glen Day, an uninsured motorcyclist who collided with another driver in Fontana in 1991. Day, who underwent several operations and now works as a dispatcher for a trucking company, said his view was obstructed by city-owned bushes. He brought a claim against Fontana, San Bernardino County and the other driver in 1992.

When the case went to trial in 1997, Day was awarded more than $450,000 by a jury--most of the sum from the city of Fontana--but was denied compensation for pain and suffering from Fontana and San Bernardino County because of Proposition 213. His subsequent appeal was denied by the state Court of Appeal in Riverside in 1999.

Thursday's majority decision, written by Justice Marvin Baxter, concluded that public entities are protected under Proposition 213 and that "the statute's operation in such cases promotes rather than defeats the declared purpose of Proposition 213, to restore balance to the justice system with respect to violators of the financial responsibility law."

Fontana city officials said they expect the decision to discourage other motorists from suing cities and to cut down on frivolous lawsuits.

"This would have been a precedent-setting decision if it had gone the other way around," said Gracie Harmon, director of human resources for Fontana.

The League of California Cities, which organized a "friend of the court" brief supporting Fontana, hailed the decision.

"It really was a bullet dodged," said league general counsel JoAnne Speers. "[The case] could have opened up the possibility of negating the intent of Proposition 213. Instead of suing other motorists, drivers could have sued public agencies."

However, the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Stanley Mosk and signed by Justice Joyce Kennard, held that the city and county should have been liable for damages.

"The city and county, which failed to maintain safe roadways and which did not contribute to the relevant insurance pool, are not reasonably numbered among those who 'play by the rules' or 'take personal responsibility' or 'pick up the tab' for skyrocketing automobile insurance costs," Mosk wrote.

Wayne McClean, Day's lawyer, said the decision gives cities a "free ride" and could encourage them not to provide upkeep for public roadways.

"This gives them less of a responsibility than they have ever had in the past," he said.

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