Cavey v. Tualla

Decision Date24 September 2021
Docket NumberF080153
Citation69 Cal.App.5th 310,284 Cal.Rptr.3d 377
Parties Ashleigh CAVEY, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Policarpio Tacas TUALLA, Jr., et al., Defendants and Respondents.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Berglund & Johnson Law Group and Stephen M. Johnson for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Weakly & Arendt, James D. Weakley, Fresno, and Ashley N. Reyes for Defendants and Respondents.

OPINION

FRANSON, ACTING P. J.

Plaintiff Ashleigh Cavey filed this personal injury action for injuries sustained in a traffic accident involving a vehicle driven by an employee of defendant Kings Canyon Unified School District (District). District filed a demurrer, contending the lawsuit was time-barred by the six-month statute of limitations proscribed in Government Code section 945.6, subdivision (a)(1).1 The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend and entered a judgment of dismissal. Plaintiff appealed.

District's theory of untimeliness is based on its July 19, 2017 notice rejecting a claim presented without plaintiff's authorization by a chiropractic firm that was treating her injuries. District contends the rejection notice started the statute of limitations and, as a result, the six-month period expired on January 19, 2018—well before plaintiff filed her complaint in April 2018. Plaintiff alleges the claim submitted by the chiropractic firm was not authorized by her and, based on that allegation, argues the claim was not presented "by a person acting on ... her behalf" for purposes of section 910. In plaintiff's view, when someone who is not acting on the claimant's behalf presents a claim, that claim has no effect and, moreover, a notice of rejection of that claim does not start the six-month limitations period. Under plaintiff's approach, the limitations period did not begin to run until the authorized claim submitted by her lawyers was deemed rejected in November 2017. Using a November 2017 start date, plaintiff contends her April 2018 complaint was timely under the six-month statute of limitations. ( § 945.6, subd. (a)(1).) Alternatively, plaintiff contends District's notice of rejection was mailed to the wrong address and, as a result, the two-year statute of limitations in section 945.6, subdivision (a)(2) applies.

As described below, we agree with both contentions and conclude the demurrer asserting that the lawsuit was untimely should have been overruled. We therefore reverse the judgment of dismissal.2

FACTS

On May 8, 2017, plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle hit by a truck driven by Policarpio Tacas Tualla, Jr. and registered to District (collectively, defendants). The collision occurred near the corner of Buttonwillow and Parlier Avenues in Fresno County. Plaintiff alleges Tualla fell asleep while driving, which caused the collision and her injuries.3

Plaintiff notes that Graham's complaint alleged (1) the vehicle driven by Tualla was a 2007 GMC 2500 truck owned by District; (2) the California Highway Patrol's traffic collision report indicated Tualla has a medical condition of continued epilepsy

and takes medication for it; (3) District was aware of Tualla's medical condition and the likelihood of injury to others it presents; (4) Tualla has been involved in at least three motor vehicle accidents while working for District; and (5) in July 2016, Tualla was charged with hit and run in Fresno County Superior Court criminal case No. M16924192.

The First Claim

After the traffic accident, plaintiff received treatment for some of her injuries from Lark Chiropractic, which had her sign several forms. Those forms included a one-page document labeled "CLAIM FOR DAMAGES" with the date "06/01/17" written to the right of plaintiff's signature. The claim stated plaintiff's injuries occurred on Monday, May 8, 2017, at 12:30 p.m.; identified the accident location; stated plaintiff was a passenger in a car hit by a work truck driven by Tualla; asserted the collision occurred because Tualla fell asleep; identified the California Highway Patrol report number for the accident; and listed plaintiff's injuries as "concussion, bruised shoulder, neck and muscle pain." The claim also stated the names

of witnesses were unknown and left blank the line for the total amount claimed.

Plaintiff's June 2018 declaration explained her signature on the claim form by stating: "I signed several documents given to me by [Lark Chiropractic], some of which were similar to lien forms. I understood that I had to sign those forms in order to receive medical treatment. I did not know I signed a government claim form. I did not know or understand at the time that it was necessary for a claim to be [presented to] a government entity in connection with my accident."

On June 5, 2017, Lark Chiropractic sent the claim signed by plaintiff to District by facsimile transmission (fax).4 The only address set forth in that claim was plaintiff's post office box in Frazier Park. Plaintiff's declaration states she "did not know that Lark Chiropractic had [presented] a government claim form on [her] behalf."

On June 13, 2017, plaintiff retained the law firm of Berglund & Johnson to pursue her personal injury claim against defendants. Plaintiff's declaration states she did not tell Berglund & Johnson "that I had signed a government claim form or that one had apparently been [presented] for me by Lark Chiropractic as I was unaware of it being done." About a week after being retained, Berglund & Johnson provided a copy of plaintiff's designation of them as her attorneys to Melissa Reynolds, an adjuster at Schools Insurance Authority. The designation informed Reynolds that the firm was representing plaintiff.

Notice of Rejection of Claim

On July 19, 2017, Reynolds signed a notice of rejection of claim on behalf of Schools Insurance Authority and mailed it to Berglund & Johnson at the firm's address in Woodland Hills. The rejection notice was not sent to the post office box listed in the claim presented by Lark Chiropractic. The notice of rejection included a line immediately below the Berglund & Johnson's address stating: "RE: Ashleigh Cavey." The body of the notice stated that "NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN that the claim which your client presented to ... District dated June 1, 2017 and received on June 5, 2017 was rejected by operation of law on July 19, 2017" and included the statutorily required warning that the claimant had only six months from the date the notice to file a lawsuit. (See §§ 913, subd. (b) [form of warning], 945.6, subd. (a) [limitation periods].)

The rejection notice did not attach a copy of the claim presented by Lark Chiropractic. As a result, the rejection notice did not provide Berglund & Johnson with details about the contents of the rejected claim, such as the factual basis for the claim, the damages sought, or who submitted it. The law firm's initial reaction to the notice of rejection is described in Johnson's declaration: "At the time, [Plaintiff's] counsel was (still) unaware of the claim submitted by Lark Chiropractic on the Plaintiff's behalf, and assumed that the rejection letter related to claims of other claimants involved in the same accident."

The Second Claim

On September 18, 2017, Berglund & Johnson completed a "CLAIM FOR DAMAGES" form. The claim stated the time, date and location of the collision; asserted Tualla caused the collision when he fell asleep while driving; identified Graham, Cerpa and Ayon as witnesses; listed plaintiff's injuries as "head, neck, left shoulder, left chest [and] mouth"; set forth the California Highway Patrol report number for the accident; and stated the total amount claimed was $250,000. Thus, the law firm's claim provided District with more information than the claim previously presented by Lark Chiropractic because it listed witnesses, stated the total amount claimed, and included plaintiff's left chest and mouth among her injuries. Daniel Johnson, in his capacity as plaintiff's attorney, signed the claim and entered his firm's address in Woodland Hills.

On September 20, 2017, Berglund & Johnson mailed one copy of the claim to District and another copy to Jason Flores, District's director of transportation. The cover letter for the claim sent to Flores stated: "Our office represents Ashleigh Cavey for her injuries received in an accident on May 8, 2017 involving a vehicle registered to Kings Canyon Unified School District. [¶] Enclosed is Claim for Damages on behalf of Ashleigh Cavey. This Claim was also sent to Kings Canyon Unified School District at 1801 10th Street, Reedley, CA 93654. Please advise if there is another location to file this Claim." The letters were sent by certified mail. The return receipt for the letter sent to the District shows it was delivered on September 22, 2017. The return receipt for the letter sent to Flores shows it was delivered on October 2, 2017 and stamped "RECEIVED" on October 4, 2017. Thus, both claims mailed by Berglund & Johnson were received by District less than 150 days after the accident—well within the six-month period for timely presenting a claim. ( § 911.2, subd. (a).)

District did not respond to the claim presented by Berglund & Johnson. In particular, District did not notify plaintiff or her lawyers that the claim presented by Berglund & Johnson was rejected or defective. Accordingly, using the September 22, 2017, delivery date of the letter sent to District, the claim was deemed rejected on November 6, 2017.5 ( § 912.4, subd. (c) [if public entity fails or refuses to act on a claim within 45 days after it was presented, "the claim shall be deemed to have been rejected"].)

PROCEEDINGS

On April 2, 2018, Berglund & Johnson filed a complaint for damages on behalf of plaintiff. The complaint named Tualla and District as defendants and alleged a single cause of action for negligent operation of a motor vehicle.

The complaint was filed less than five months after the November 2017 deemed rejection date of the claim presented by Berglund &...

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