California just made it easier for plaintiffs to get mandatory trial preference. Fox v. Metalclad Insulation LLC required that preference be granted based on a mere attorney declaration comprised of generic symptoms of an over-70 year old plaintiff, and even though plaintiff is in partial remission.

California allows plaintiffs to move for a preferential trial date in certain circumstances depending on the age or health of the plaintiff. If granted, the judge must set the matter for trial no more than 120 days from the date the motion was granted, with a maximum continuance of up to 15 days. The mandatory preference statute requires the granting of preference if three elements are satisfied: (1) plaintiff is over 70 years old; (2) he/she has a substantial interest in the action; and (3) “[t]he health of the party is such that preference is necessary to prevent prejudicing the party’s interest in the litigation.” The focus of the Fox decision was primarily on the third, more subjective requirement.

Trial Court Ms. Fox sued eighteen defendants, alleging that she developed stage IV lung cancer, asbestosis, and asbestos-related pleural disease as a result of shaking and laundering her husband’s work clothing. Plaintiffs filed a motion for preference, almost a year after the initial filing of the case, supported solely by (1) an attorney declaration, with attached medical records, and (2) a declaration from Ms. Fox describing her recent medical history and current symptoms, including “fogginess in [her] thought process that impairs [her] ability to focus, concentrate and effectively communicate.” The defense opposition argued that 1) the two declarations failed to demonstrate that plaintiff’s health necessitates the granting of preference and 2) that the court should balance interests, including defendant’s due process rights, when ruling on this motion. Judge Ming-mei Lee of San Francisco Superior Court denied plaintiffs’ motion, noting that plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate that the health of Ardella Fox is such that preference is necessary to prevent prejudicing her interest in the litigation.” Plaintiffs sought a writ of mandate to compel the trial court to grant their motion.

Appellate Court The appellate court granted the petition and issued the writ. The court extrapolated information about her current condition from her attorney’s declaration including that she is undergoing chemotherapy every three weeks, suffers from “chemo brain” leading to brain fog, and is getting increasingly weaker.

The court ruled that an attorney declaration relying on hearsay and conclusions suffices under the mandatory preference statute (although under a companion discretionary statute, “clear and convincing medical documentation” is required). Finally, the court addressed when a party’s health would make preference necessary. Here, the court found that plaintiff’s diagnoses, accompanied with her treatment, “constant discomfort,” and deteriorating mental state necessitated preference, despite her partial remission. “The absence of more specifics about Ms. Fox’s prognosis was insufficient reason to deny the Foxes’ request for calendar preference.” The court rejected defendant’s arguments that a balancing of interests must be conducted, concluding that no balancing of defendant’s due process rights or fundamental fairness was necessary. Finally, the court held that plaintiffs’ should not have to wait to file a preference motion until plaintiff “is clearly in her final days,” because this would subvert the legislative intent of granting preference to prevent prejudice.

After Fox, plaintiffs will have an easier time showing that their health makes it necessary to grant preference, as even a plaintiff in partial remission got preference granted.

As it points out, the bar for evidence to oppose (and win) this type of motion is very high. “If by way of opposition, [the defense] had submitted, say, a photograph of 81-year-old Ms. Fox scuba-diving in the Galapagos Islands just last fall, there might be some basis to expect more medical detail, but on this record we see no genuine dispute that Ms. Fox is very sick.” This decision is a win for asbestos plaintiffs in California and defendants should be aware of this decision and the high standard set for opposing preference motions.