21 Cal.4th 272, S073129, Horwich v. Superior Court

Docket Nº:S073129
Citation:21 Cal.4th 272, 87 Cal.Rptr.2d 222, 980 P.2d 927
Opinion Judge:[9] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chin, J.
Party Name:Horwich v. Superior Court
Attorney:[8] Attorneys for Appellant: Horvitz & Levy, Barry R. Levy, Sandra J. Smith, Jon B. Eisenberg; Barry Bartholomew & Associates and Larry P. Bilbrew for Petitioner. Carroll, Burdick & McDonough, David M. Rice, Timothy C. Smith; Mayer, Brown & Platt, Alan Untereiner and Kathryn Schaefer for Mercedes...
Case Date:August 09, 1999
Court:Supreme Court of California
 
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Page 272

21 Cal.4th 272

87 Cal.Rptr.2d 222, 980 P.2d 927

BENJAMIN R. HORWICH, Petitioner,

v.

THE SUPERIOR COURT OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Respondent;

EDWARD ACUNA et al., Real Parties in Interest.

S073129.

Supreme Court of California

August 9, 1999

Page 273

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 274

COUNSEL

Horvitz & Levy, Barry R. Levy, Sandra J. Smith, Jon B. Eisenberg; Barry Bartholomew & Associates and Larry P. Bilbrew for Petitioner.

Carroll, Burdick & McDonough, David M. Rice, Timothy C. Smith; Mayer, Brown & Platt, Alan Untereiner and Kathryn Schaefer for Mercedes-Benz of North America, Inc., as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

No appearance for Respondent.

Law Offices of M. Scott Radovich and M. Scott Radovich for Real Parties in Interest.

Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, Robin B. Johansen, Joseph Remcho, Kathleen J. Purcell, James C. Harrison; and Gina M. Calabrese for the Congress of California Seniors, the Latino Issues Forum, the Greenlining Institute, the Utility Consumer Action Network, the Consumer Attorneys of California and the Proposition 103 Enforcement Project as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Parties in Interest.

OPINION

MBROWN, J.—

In this case, we must determine whether Civil Code section 3333.4 (all unspecified statutory references are to the Civil Code), enacted as

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part of Proposition 213, precludes a wrongful death plaintiff whose decedent was the uninsured operator of a motor vehicle involved in an accident from recovering damages for loss of care, comfort, and society. We conclude recovery is permissible and therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

Factual and Procedural Background

Melissa Acuna was killed in an automobile accident; she did not have personal automobile insurance or any insurance for the vehicle she was driving. Her parents, real parties in interest Edward and Elisa Acuna (plaintiffs), sued the driver of the other vehicle, petitioner Benjamin Horwich (defendant), for wrongful death and, on behalf of Melissa's estate, for survival causes of action. 1

In his answer, defendant alleged as an affirmative defense pursuant to section 3333.4, subdivision (a) (2) and (3), that Melissa was uninsured at the time of the accident and therefore plaintiffs could not recover damages for the nonpecuniary value of her care, comfort, and society. (See post, fn. 3.) Plaintiffs admitted to Melissa's lack of insurance but contended the statutory prohibition only applied to the uninsured owner or operator of the automobile involved in an accident, which they were not. The trial court agreed and granted their motion for judgment on the pleadings.

On defendant's petition for writ of mandate, the Court of Appeal affirmed.

Discussion

Section 3333.4 was enacted as part of the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996—Proposition 213—approved by the voters in November 1996. As relevant here, it provides:

"(a) [I]n any action to recover damages arising out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle, a person shall not recover non-economic losses to compensate for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other nonpecuniary damages if any of the following applies:

" * * *

"(2) The injured person was the owner of a vehicle involved in the accident and the vehicle was not insured as required by the financial responsibility laws of this state.

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"(3) The injured person was the operator of a vehicle involved in the accident and the operator can not establish his or her financial responsibility as required by the financial responsibility laws of this state." 2

The question here is whether the statute precludes a wrongful death plaintiff who is not the uninsured owner or operator of a vehicle involved in the accident—but whose decedent was—from recovering for loss of care, comfort, and society. 3

"The fundamental purpose of statutory construction is to ascertain the intent of the lawmakers so as to effectuate the purpose of the law. [Citations.] In order to determine this intent, we begin by examining the language of the statute. [Citations.] But '[i]t is a settled principle of statutory interpretation that language of a statute should not be given a literal meaning if doing so would result in absurd consequences which the Legislature did not intend.' [Citations.] Thus, '[t]he intent prevails over the letter, and the letter will, if possible, be so read as to conform to the spirit of the act.' [Citation.] Finally, we do not construe statutes in isolation, but rather read every statute 'with reference to the entire scheme of law of which it is part so that the whole may be harmonized and retain effectiveness.' [Citation.]" (People v. Pieters (1991) 52 Cal.3d 894, 898-899 [276 Cal.Rptr. 918].) We must also consider "the object to be achieved and the evil to be prevented by the legislation. [Citations.]" (Harris v. Capital Growth Investors XIV (1991) 52 Cal.3d 1142, 1159 [278 Cal.Rptr. 614].) These guiding principles apply equally to the interpretation of voter initiatives. (Whitman v. Superior Court (1991) 54 Cal.3d 1063, 1072 [2 Cal.Rptr.2d 160].)

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The Court of Appeal concluded, and plaintiffs argue, that section 3333.4 only bars recovery when the "injured person" is an uninsured "owner [or operator] of a vehicle involved in the accident ...." Since plaintiffs are neither, they do not come within the express terms of the statute. In his briefing, defendant argues the statute applies more broadly. Under his construction, the statute "specifies no limitation on the type of 'person'—that is, the type of plaintiff (e.g., wrongful death or personal injury)—who is restricted to recovery of economic damages." Therefore, "a person" in subdivision (a) bars recovery by any person who brings a cause of action "arising out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle." At oral argument, defendant offered a less sweeping interpretation, which nevertheless would preclude wrongful death plaintiffs from noneconomic recovery. (See post, p. 280.) According to defendant, his construction best advances the electorate's intent to ease the economic burden on insured motorists and taxpayers and restore balance to our justice system. (See Yoshioka v. Superior Court (1997) 58 Cal.App.4th 972, 983 [68 Cal.Rptr.2d 553].)

As we have recently noted with respect to other provisions in section 3333.4, "[t]he language is not pellucid." (Hodges v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal.4th 109, 113 [86 Cal.Rptr.2d 884].) Both "a person" and the "injured person" are subject to different interpretations, some supporting plaintiffs' position and some supporting defendant's. We therefore seek enlightenment in the "legislative history" of Proposition 213. 4 (See White v. Davis (1975) 13 Cal.3d 757, 775 & fn. 11 [120 Cal.Rptr. 94].) Considering the electorate's intended goal as reflected in the language of the initiative and in the ballot arguments, we ultimately agree with the Court of Appeal that the controlling language for our purposes is the reference to the "injured person" (§ 3333.4, subd. (a) (2) & (3)), which refers to the plaintiff in the action, i.e., the limitation on the recovery of nonpecuniary damages by "a person" (id., subd. (a)) operates against only a plaintiff who is the uninsured owner or operator of a vehicle involved in the accident.

To begin, this conclusion accords with the "Findings and Declaration of Purpose" of Proposition 213, which states:

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"(a) Insurance costs have skyrocketed for those Californians who have taken responsibility for their actions. Uninsured motorists, drunk drivers, and criminal felons are law breakers, and should not be rewarded for their irresponsibility and law breaking. However, under current laws, uninsured motorists and drunk drivers are able to recover unreasonable damages from law-abiding citizens as a result of drunk driving and other accidents, and criminals have been able to recover damages from law-abiding citizens for injuries suffered during the commission of their crimes.

"(b) Californians must change the system that rewards individuals who fail to take essential personal responsibility to prevent them from seeking unreasonable damages or from suing law-abiding citizens.

"(c) Therefore, the People of the State of California do hereby enact this measure to restore balance to our justice system by limiting the right to sue of criminals, drunk drivers, and uninsured motorists." (Ballot Pamp., Prop. 213: Text of Proposed Law, Gen. Elec. (Nov. 5, 1996) § 2, p. 102, italics added; hereafter Ballot Pamphlet.)

The declaration of purpose focuses the electorate's concern solely on those who have failed to take personal responsibility for their actions, including drivers without obligatory liability insurance. According to the plain language of the proposition, the "Civil Justice Reform" effected by section 3333.4 (Ballot Pamp., supra, Prop. 213, § 3, at p. 102) is aimed at these individuals and these individuals alone. A wrongful death plaintiff who is neither the uninsured owner nor operator of a vehicle involved in the accident cannot be one who has failed to take personal responsibility because the law imposes no obligation on that person. 5 Nor are wrongful death plaintiffs mentioned in the text of the proposition as subject to its restrictions. (Cf. §§ 1431.2 [eliminating joint and several liability for noneconomic damages in "any action for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death"]; 3333.2, subd. (2) [Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act limit on noneconomic damage recovery applies when professional negligence "is the proximate cause of a personal injury or wrongful death"]; Hodges v. Superior Court, supra...

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