In the recent decision Williams v. The Pep Boys Manny Moe & Jack of Cal., a California court of appeal addressed four important topics that defendants frequently confront:
- How to defeat a plaintiff’s attempt to name defendants late as “Does.”
- A not-so-welcome restatement that economic damages include nursing services gratuitously provided by family members.
- A welcome ruling that recoverable damages in a survival action are limited to damages incurred before death.
- A reminder that a settlement offer to multiple plaintiffs will not qualify for cost-shifting, even if plaintiffs fail to “beat” the offer at trial, unless the offer is apportioned among plaintiffs and is not conditioned on acceptance by all.
1. “Doe” defendants, plaintiff’s knowledge and statute of limitations.
Like most jurisdictions, California allows plaintiffs to amend their complaint to designate a defendant unknown to plaintiff at the time of filing the complaint, usually designated as “Doe.” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 474.) An amendment made pursuant to this section will “relate back,” i.e. be deemed to have been filed at the same time as the original complaint, if made within three years of the original complaint, even if the statute of limitations ran in the interim.
Williams stressed that the Doe defendant procedure is “‘available only when the plaintiff is actually ignorant of the facts establishing a cause of action against the party to be substituted for a Doe.’” In other words, “[i]gnorance of the facts giving rise to a cause of action is the ‘ignorance’ required by section 474, and the pivotal question is ‘did plaintiff know facts’ not ‘did plaintiff know or believe that he had a cause of action based on those facts?’”
In Williams, plaintiffs knew before they filed the original complaint that their father died of mesothelioma, that asbestos was the cause of the mesothelioma, and that the father purchased defendant’s asbestos-containing products. They “knew most of the story.” This was enough that the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the wrongful death claims as outside the statute of limitations.
2. Nursing services provided by family members to decedent prior to death are recoverable damages.
Williams reaffirmed that California allows plaintiffs to recover the value of nursing services provided to the injured plaintiff by a family member, even in the absence of an agreement or an expectation of payment.
3. Future home care that would have been provided to a spouse is recoverable up until death, not after.
Under California’s survival law, decedents’ personal representative or successor in interest can recover the decedent’s other pecuniary losses incurred before death. (Cal. Code of Civ. Proc., § 377.34.) Here, plaintiffs sought to recover the value of around the clock nursing care that decedent would have provided to his wife but for his death.
Williams ruled that section 377.34 limited recoverable damages to those incurred prior to death. Plaintiffs relied on Overly v. Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 164, 171, where plaintiffs attempted to recover the value of household services as income post death, even though the dying husband was still alive. The Williams court found Overly inapplicable, because it did not deal with a survival action. Furthermore, the plain language of the statute only allowed for the recovery of penalty and punitive damages incurred after decedent’s death and thus intentionally excluded other categories of damages decedent would have been entitled to had he lived. The Williams court stated that survival action damages are narrowly limited to “the loss or damage that the decedent sustained or incurred before death,” which by definition excludes future damages.
4. Cautions for settlement offers to multiple plaintiffs.
Here, as in many asbestos defense cases, plaintiffs had both a wrongful death and a survival claim. Defendant offered a single unapportioned sum in exchange for dismissal, “contingent upon acceptance by all plaintiffs as it is the intention of defendant to obtain a full and final resolution of all claims asserted by plaintiffs in this matter.” This offer did not qualify for cost-shifting, even though plaintiffs’ recovery was less than the offer amount. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 998; cf. Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 67.)
The offer fell afoul of “the general rule … that a section 998 offer to multiple plaintiffs is valid only if it is expressly apportioned among them and not conditioned on acceptance by all of them.” An exception exists when one or more plaintiffs have a “unity of interest such that there is a single, indivisible injury.” A unity of interest exists for example when spouses suffer injury to community property. There is no such “unity” as between multiple survival and wrongful death claimants.
This does not mean a defendant cannot make such an offer, or that plaintiffs cannot accept one. It does however mean that such an offer will not shift costs to plaintiffs even if they fail to beat it at trial.
The Williams decision is a double-edged sword for defendants. On the one hand, it puts plaintiffs on notice to timely replace “Does” or face statute of limitation issues. On the other, it increases the scope of recoverable damages in survival actions to encompass fees gratuitously provided by family members. It also reminds parties (usually defendants) to carefully draft settlement agreements and appropriately apportion amounts to each cause of action and to each plaintiff without a condition for all to accept. It also shows the proper stance on the application of lost years’ damages, which hopefully shall limit the plaintiffs’ bar’s future attempts in claiming improper damages. So counsel, pay attention to the small facts and don’t cut corner with your settlements. In the famous words of Rodney Lavoie Jr. (survival Boston contestant), “this ain’t a campin’ trip. This is suhvivah!” (at least for your client’s pocket).