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Supreme Court Limits Application of Prop. 51

August 14, 2020

By: Suzanna R. Harman

A new unanimous ruling by the California Supreme Court takes away any doubt as to Proposition 51's applicability to intentional tortfeasors and increases concerns for multi-defendant litigation. While California's Proposition 51 (Civil Code section 1431.2) states that all defendants are jointly liable for all economic damages, it further states that "each defendant shall be liable only for . . .non-economic damages . . . in direct proportion to that defendant's percentage of fault."

In B.B. v. County of Los Angeles, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that section 1431.2, subdivision (a), does not authorize a reduction in the liability of intentional tortfeasors for noneconomic damages based on the extent to which the negligence of other actors — including the plaintiffs, any codefendants, injured parties, and nonparties — contributed to the injuries in question." The holding resolves a split among California appellate courts as to Proposition 51's applicability to intentional tortfeasors.

B.B. v. County of Los Angeles involves the death of an African American man caused by excessive police force. Although involved officer, Deputy Aviles, was found to be liable for battery and only 20% responsible, the trial court held him liable for 100% of the economic and non-economic damages. In comparison, decedent was found to be 40% responsible and several deputies were found to be negligent and collectively 40% responsible. The Court of Appeal reversed this decision. However, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal, stating "California principles of comparative fault have never required or authorized the reduction of an intentional tortfeasor’s liability based on the acts of others."

In noting the racial dimensions of this case, Justice Chin stated, "We are cognizant that the facts of this case bear similarities to well-publicized incidents in which African Americans have died during encounters with police. These incidents raise deeply troubling and difficult issues involving race and the use of police force. But the question plaintiffs raise in this case — whether and how section 1431.2 applies to intentional tortfeasors — does not turn upon either the decedent’s race or the fact that a law enforcement officer, rather than a civilian, committed the intentional tort." As such, the Supreme Court made it clear that this holding applies with equal vigor to all multi-defendant litigation.

The unfortunate consequence of this ruling is the strong incentive for plaintiffs to now allege intentional torts in multi-defendant litigation, as the defendant found liable for the intentional tort will be responsible for all noneconomic damages rather than a portion thereof. In addition to the hurdle of facing large noneconomic damages verdicts, intentional acts are often excluded from liability insurance policies.