In California, while all defendants are liable to plaintiff for 100% of plaintiff’s economic damages, under “Proposition 51” defendants are liable for non-economic damages only in proportion to fault. The California Supreme Court heard argument this week on whether that includes a defendant liable for an intentional tort.

B.B. v. County of Los Angeles involves suits brought by the widow and surviving children of a man who died after a “prolonged and violent struggle with several deputies” including a chokehold. Several deputies were found negligent, and one found liable for intentional use of excessive force – battery. The case involved whether the intentional tort deputy should be liable for 100% of the non-economic damages or only his 20% share of responsibility.

Plaintiffs argued that the statute applies to an “action … based on principles of comparative fault,” and that while negligence is based on such principles, intentional tort liability is not. Intentional tortfeasors should not be allowed to shift the risk of noncollectibility of any portion of the non-economic damages to plaintiff. The defense argued that the purpose of Proposition 51 is to share responsibility for non-economic damages among all tortfeasors. I co-authored an amicus curiae brief for the defense.

The court posed remarkably few questions to either side, perhaps in part due to the novelty of arguing via remote video connection. That makes it harder to assess which way the court may be leaning.

The court’s decision, due within 90 days, will potentially affect many tort cases, and in particular many toxic tort cases. Plaintiffs routinely sue many defendants in the same case for committing independent acts of wrongdoing that collectively contributed to cause an injury. In product liability and asbestos exposure cases, plaintiffs typically assert claims for negligent and strict liability failure to warn, which they use as the springboard to also assert intentional tort claims for fraud and concealment based on the same evidence concerning a defendant’s failure (decades or even generations ago) to provide information about a product. If the California Supreme Court decides that intentional tort defendants are categorically exempt from the several liability protections of Proposition 51, then we can expect to see even more emphasis by the plaintiffs’ bar to advance intentional tort theories like fraud or battery.