Factual and procedural background
Claudia Fernandez was a single mother who was 38-years-old. She had four children who ranged in ages from 22 to 10 and worked in an animal hospital to support them. Her children’s names were Rachel Fernandez, Jeremy Valle, Donovan Valle, and Ryan Valle. Rachel was attending college, and the three younger brothers were all enrolled in school.
Elba Jimenez and Maria Rodriguez had lived together for five years. On June 16, 2012, they went to a party where Jimenez drank three or more shots of tequila. Rodriguez saw Jimenez taking the shots. After the party, Jimenez drove both of them to Jimenez’s mother’s home because Rodriguez had left her second car there. Jimenez reportedly refused to give Rodriguez her keys and drove off. A police officer then saw Jimenez driving badly and attempted to pull her over. To try to evade the officer, Jimenez exited from the freeway and subsequently crashed into a taco truck. Claudia was at the taco truck getting a taco. She and one other person were both killed in the crash.
Following their mother’s death, all four children suffered multiple problems. Rachel lost interest in college and dropped out. She started working with people who had disabilities as a home care aide. She obtained guardianship of her younger brothers and tried to raise them. However, she was unable to control the oldest two, Jeremy and Donovan. Jeremy didn’t finish high school and dropped out. Donovan had previously gotten As and Bs before his mother died. After her death, he was only passing five out of eight classes. Ryan was 10 when his mother died, and he had a hearing disability. Other kids took advantage of him because of his disability. His goal was to pass his classes.
The children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Jimenez for negligence and against Rodriguez for negligent entrustment of her vehicle to Jimenez, whom she knew had been drinking. Jimenez admitted liability while Rodriguez did not. After the trial, the jury found that Rodriguez had negligently entrusted her car to Jimenez. The jury awarded each of the children $11,250,000 in non-economic damages for a total of $45 million. Since the defendants failed to accept the § 998 demand that the plaintiffs had made, the court ordered prejudgment interest of $7,145,376. Jimenez and Rodriguez appealed, arguing that the non-economic damages award was excessive and that they had never received the § 998 demand.
Issue: Whether the non-economic damages award was excessive?
Following the trial, Rodriguez and Jimenez filed a motion for a new trial on several grounds. The primary ground for their motion was that the non-economic damages award by the jury for the children was excessive. They also argued that they did not receive the § 998 demand and asked for the costs to be taxed. The court denied the motions, and Rodriguez and Jimenez filed an appeal.
Rule: In wrongful death claims, the jury can award damages in a just amount.
Under Cal. Civ. Code Proc. § 377.61, damages in a wrongful death action may be awarded in an amount that is considered to be just. Plaintiffs are allowed to recover their pecuniary losses, including the loss of support and guidance of the decedents, but they are not allowed to recover damages for their grief. The court considers several factors when valuing the loss of support and guidance, including the closeness of the family, the character of the decedent as a kind and loving person, and the depth of the affection and love of the relationship the plaintiffs had with the decedent. The appeals court can intervene in cases in which the damages award is so large that it shocks the conscience.
Rodriguez and Jimenez made four arguments about why the appeals court should reverse the damages award, including the following:
- The award shocks the conscience in comparison to other awards;
- The plaintiffs’ attorney preconditioned the jury so that it would make a large award;
- The plaintiffs’ attorney presented evidence that Jimenez had a prior DUI; and
- The plaintiffs’ attorney improperly asked the jury to punish the defendants.
The court first noted that comparing the awards in other cases offered only minimal value because the facts and circumstances of each case are different. Judgments will normally be considered excessive only when they were awarded because of the jury’s passion and prejudice. The court stated that the cases for comparison all involved parents who had lost children. These cases did not compare to the situation in which a single mother was killed by a drunk driver, leaving behind four children, three of whom were children and who suffered bad grades and other problems after her death. The court found that in those circumstances, the damages award did not shock the conscience.
The court then considered the defendants’ next argument that the plaintiff’s lawyer improperly preconditioned the jury to return a large verdict award. They argued that the attorney preconditioned the jury during jury selection and committed misconduct. The court noted that attorney misconduct may be grounds for a new trial. To preserve an issue for appeal, the defendant should have objected to the impropriety at the time. When misconduct does occur, the other party must present evidence that it was so prejudicial that a new trial is warranted.
During voir dire, the plaintiffs’ attorney asked the prospective jurors whether an award of $200 million would be shocking. The attorney said that damages of hundreds of millions of dollars might be asked for in the case, and asked if that would shock anyone. A couple of the jurors agreed that it would be shocking. The defendants’ attorney objected, and the jury was instructed that they did not know the amount. The defendants moved for a mistrial based on the questioning, which the court denied. The plaintiffs’ lawyer did ask the jury to return a verdict of $200 million. The court found that this was not improper preconditioning because jurors are allowed to know how much damages the plaintiffs are seeking.
The court then looked at the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs’ lawyer improperly introduced evidence of Jimenez’s prior DUI. Jimenez had a prior DUI conviction in 2005, and Rodriguez was in the car with her at the time. The plaintiffs’ lawyer asked Rodriguez about that incident to show that she had prior knowledge of Jimenez’s pattern of driving while intoxicated. Jimenez argued that this was improper because it introduced prejudicial evidence that she had a prior DUI conviction. The trial court had excluded the conviction at trial during an in limine ruling. The plaintiffs’ lawyer did not ask if Jiminez had been convicted of a DUI but instead asked Rodriguez if she had ever been in a car while Jiminez was driving under the influence. She testified that she had not, and the plaintiffs’ lawyer asked, “Not even in 2005?” The defense attorney objected, and the court granted the objection. The plaintiffs’ lawyer then moved to impeach and asked more questions.
The appeals court found this was not improper because Rodriguez had denied that she had been in a vehicle when Jiminez was driving under the influence. When she did that, she opened herself up to being impeached by the prior incident.
The court then considered the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs’ lawyer improperly encouraged the jurors to punish the defendants during the trial. The appeals court found that the plaintiffs’ lawyer did not improperly encourage the jury to punish the defendants.
The appeals court affirmed the jury’s verdict award and the trial court’s denial of the motion for a new trial. It found that since the plaintiffs had returns of service for their § 998 demands, that was sufficient since the trial court found that they were credible. The judgment was upheld, and the defendants were ordered to pay the plaintiffs’ costs on appeal.
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