Hodges v. Superior Court, No. S070935

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Writing for the CourtMOSK; GEORGE, C.J., KENNARD, J., BAXTER, J., CHIN, J., and BROWN; Concurring Opinion by WERDEGAR
Citation21 Cal.4th 109,980 P.2d 433,86 Cal.Rptr.2d 884
Parties, 980 P.2d 433, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 15,587, 99 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 6166, 1999 Daily Journal D.A.R. 7863 Benjamin HODGES, a Minor, etc., Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Santa Clara County, Respondent; Ford Motor Company, Real Party in Interest
Decision Date02 August 1999
Docket NumberNo. S070935

Page 884

86 Cal.Rptr.2d 884
21 Cal.4th 109, 980 P.2d 433, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 15,587,
99 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 6166,
1999 Daily Journal D.A.R. 7863
Benjamin HODGES, a Minor, etc., Petitioner,
v.
The SUPERIOR COURT of Santa Clara County, Respondent;
Ford Motor Company, Real Party in Interest.
No. S070935.
Supreme Court of California
Aug. 2, 1999.

Page 885

Law Offices of David S. Rand, David S. Rand, San Francisco; Law Offices of Ellen Lake and Ellen Lake, Oakland, for Petitioner.

David J. Jung, San Francisco, as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, Charles H. Bell, Jr., Thomas W. Hiltachk and James F. Sweeney, Sacramento, for California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, Robin B. Johansen, Joseph Remcho, Kathleen J. Purcell and James C. Harrison, San Francisco, for Congress of California Seniors, Consumer Attorneys of California, Latino Issues Forum, Greenlining Institute and Utility Consumer Action Network as Amici Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

Public Citizen Litigation Group, Brian Wolfman; Law Offices of Eugene N. Rosenberg and Eugene N. Rosenberg, San Francisco, for Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety as Amici Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

Page 886

Robert Stern and Craig N. Holman for the Center for Governmental Studies as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

No appearance for Respondent.

Dryden, Margoles, Schimaneck, Kelly & Wait, Frank P. Kelly II, San Francisco, H. Grant Law; McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe, Grace R. Den Hartog, William H. King, Jr., E. Duncan Getchell, Jr., Joseph K. Reid III, Huntington Beach; Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin and Jerome B. Falk, San Francisco, for Real Party in Interest.

Mayer, Brown & Platt, Alen E. Untereiner, Kathryn Schaefer; Charles H. Lockwood II; Philllip D. Brady and Andrew D. Koblenz for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, Inc., as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

Floyd Feeney and Carol S. Bruch, Davis, as Amici Curiae.

MOSK, J.

Petitioner Benjamin Hodges, an uninsured motorist, suffered injuries as the result of a rear-end collision that caused the gas tank of the Ford Mustang he was driving to rupture. He brought a products liability action against real party in interest Ford Motor Company (hereafter Ford), the manufacturer of the car, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Civil Code section 3333.4, enacted by the voters in the 1996 General Election as part of Proposition 213, precludes recovery of "non-economic losses to compensate for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other nonpecuniary damages" by an uninsured motorist "in any action to recover damages arising out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle." We granted review to address the question whether any award against Ford in this matter for noneconomic losses would be barred by the provision. As we shall explain, the answer is no; the limit on damages under Civil Code section 3333.4 does not apply to a products liability action brought by an uninsured motorist for injuries caused by a design defect.

I

On June 24, 1995, Hodges was driving a borrowed 1967 Ford Mustang. The Mustang was not insured by its owner; nor did Hodges have automobile insurance. The Mustang stalled on the freeway and was struck from the rear by another car driving at high speed. The gas tank of the Mustang, which was located in the trunk, ruptured and expelled gasoline vapor into the passenger compartment, causing an explosion. The driver's seat collapsed, delaying Hodges's exit. He suffered injuries, including second and third degree burns over 26 percent of his body.

Hodges brought an action against Ford for personal injury, alleging that the Mustang gas tank was defective in design and seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. Ford moved for summary adjudication, asserting, inter alia, that Hodges was an uninsured motorist and was therefore barred under Civil Code section 3333.4 from recovering either compensatory noneconomic damages or punitive damages.

The superior court denied the motion with regard to the issue whether Hodges could recover "any 'non-economic damages' " because it would not dispose entirely of a cause of action; it granted the motion with regard to the claim for punitive damages. Describing punitive damages as "a subset of non-economic damages," it characterized Civil Code section 3333.4 as "bar[ring] an uninsured motorist from recovering non-economic and non-pecuniary damages." It ruled that the bar, which operates in "any action to recover damages arising out of the use or operation of a motor vehicle," precluded Hodges from recovering punitive damages in his products liability action against Ford: "The undisputed facts in the record establish

Page 887

that [Hodges] was using and operating a motor vehicle at the time he was injured and that the accident would not have occurred had [he] not been so engaged." 1

Hodges filed a petition for writ of mandate and the Court of Appeal summarily denied relief. We granted review.

We now hold that the trial court erred. A products liability claim against an automobile manufacturer falls outside the scope of Civil Code section 3333.4. Accordingly, we are not called upon to resolve the question whether punitive damages are "nonpecuniary damages" within the meaning of the statute. 2

II

Civil Code section 3333.4 provides, in relevant part: "[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 ... [p] ... [p] [t]he 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." (Id., subd. (a)(3).) 3

The superior court apparently determined that the limits on recovery of noneconomic damages under Civil Code section 3333.4 apply in an action of any kind in which an uninsured motorist seeks damages that resulted as a consequence of operating or using a motor vehicle. Such conclusion was erroneous.

We begin by examining the meaning of the phrase "any action to recover damages arising out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle" as it appears in Civil Code section 3333.4. The language is not pellucid. The operative words are "operation or use." Does the statute refer to all actions arising out of the "operation or use" of a motor vehicle? That is, does it reasonably include an action for products liability brought against a manufacturer for a defect that became manifest during "operation or use"?

Nor, as we have previously observed, is the sense of the phrase "arising out of" transparent. Thus, in Central Pathology Service Medical Clinic, Inc. v. Superior Court (1992) 3 Cal.4th 181, 10 Cal.Rptr.2d 208, 832 P.2d 924 (Central Pathology ), we considered the scope of a provision restricting claims for noneconomic damages "[i]n any action for damages arising out of the professional negligence of a health care provider." (Code Civ. Proc., § 425.13, subd. (a), italics added.) In determining whether a cause of action for an intentional tort could be said to " 'arise out of' "--i.e., "to originate, grow, or flow from"--professional negligence for the purposes of Code of Civil Procedure section 425.13, we observed that the uncertainty was "not clarified by the words of the statute." (Central Pathology, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 188, 10

Page 888

Cal.Rptr.2d 208, 832 P.2d 924.) We looked, therefore, beyond the literal words of the provision, emphasizing that the scope and meaning of the phrase " 'arising out of professional negligence' " could vary depending upon the legislative history and "the purpose underlying each of the individual statutes" in which it appeared. (Id. at p. 192, 10 Cal.Rptr.2d 208, 832 P.2d 924.) Here, similarly, our inquiry into the meaning of the phrase "arising out of"--specifically whether the statute contemplates that a products liability action is one "arising out of" the operation or use of a motor vehicle--requires us to look beyond the literal language of the provision. 4

As the foregoing discussion shows, "[t]o seek the meaning of a statute is not simply to look up dictionary definitions and then stitch together the results. Rather, it is to discern the sense of the statute, and therefore its words, in the legal and broader culture. Obviously, a statute has no meaning apart from its words. Similarly, its words have no meaning apart from the world in which they are spoken." (Kopp v. Fair Pol. Practices Com. (1995) 11 Cal.4th 607, 673, 47 Cal.Rptr.2d 108, 905 P.2d 1248 (conc. opn. of Mosk J.), italics in original.) We do not interpret the meaning or intended application of a legislative enactment in a vacuum. In the case of a voters' initiative statute, too, we may not properly interpret the measure in a way that the electorate did not contemplate: the voters should get what they enacted, not more and not less.

In this matter, therefore, we are obliged to interrogate the electorate's purpose, as indicated in the ballot arguments and elsewhere. Specifically, for the purposes of this matter, we address the narrow question whether the initiative statute limits recovery of damages by an uninsured motorist in a products liability case. After due consideration, we answer that question in the negative.

It seems clear that a primary aim of the Proposition 213, as relevant here, was to limit automobile insurance claims by uninsured motorists. The electorate wanted to ensure that uninsured motorists, who contribute nothing to the insurance pool, would be restricted in what they receive from it. This...

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