Damage claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – and really any personal injury claims — are broken down into two categories: economic and noneconomic damages. Pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of consortium are commonly sought in large numbers as noneconomic damages to enhance a plaintiff’s out-of-pocket damages. Prior to 1986, a plaintiff could recover all of her economic and noneconomic damages from one party, even if she pursued multiple defendants. Proposition 51 — the California Fair Responsibility Act — changed that. Codified at Civil Code 1431.2, it imposes several liability for noneconomic damages, while still allowing joint liability for economic damages. Several liability means each defendant can pay noneconomic damages only in proportion to his or her own fault.

This past week, the California Supreme Court in B.B. v. County of Los Angeles unanimously ruled that intentional tortfeasors cannot use Proposition 51 to reduce their liability for noneconomic damages. Resolving a split among California’s appellate courts, the Court ruled that Civil Code 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.”

In the case, L.A. County sheriffs used deadly force against Darren Burley, an African American. The officers suspected Burley was under the influence of drugs, and he resisted arrest for assaulting a woman. During the struggle, Deputy David Aviles pressed one knee into the center of Burley’s back, and another onto the back of his head. The jury found Aviles committed battery by using unreasonable force against Burley. Ultimately, the jury found decedent 40% responsible, Deputy Aviles 20% responsible, and the remaining deputies negligent and collectively 40% responsible. The trial court later entered judgment against Aviles for the entire amount of noneconomic damages — $8 million, even though the jury found Aviles only 20% at fault — because he committed an intentional tort.

The Second District Court of Appeal reversed, ordering the judgment against Aviles reduced to his proportional fault. It relied on the language of Civil Code section 1431.2, which provides in relevant part: “In any action for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death, based upon principles of comparative fault, the liability of each defendant for noneconomic damages shall be several only and shall not be joint. Each defendant shall be liable only for the amount of noneconomic damages allocated to that defendant in direct proportion to that defendant’s percentage of fault, and a separate judgment shall be rendered against that defendant for that amount.” The Court of Appeal applied the statute to intentional tortfeasors, allowing them to reduce their liability based on the negligent acts of others. The Second District expressly rejected a contrary holding by the Fourth District in Thomas v. Duggins Construction Co., Inc.

The Supreme Court reversed. In the opinion authored by Justice Chin, the Court ruled the statute’s application to cases decided “under principles of comparative fault” includes negligence and strict product liability, but not intentional torts. Detailing the common law pre-Proposition 51 and Code of Civil Procedure § 875, the Court concluded the law uniformly held that reduced liability under principles of comparative fault is not available to intentional tortfeasors. And relying on Thomas, the law post-Proposition 51 was no different. The Court rejected arguments this was inconsistent with Proposition 51’s language and created unfair results, as argued by amici curiae the Association of Southern California Defense Counsel and the Association of Defense Counsel of Northern California and Nevada. Instead, it held “[t]he preceding discussion demonstrates that California principles of comparative fault have never required or authorized the reduction of an intentional tortfeasor’s liability based on the acts of others,” and that section 1431.2, subdivision (a) just incorporates these principles of comparative fault. The Court found no inequity with treating intentional tortfeasors differently from negligent or strictly liable tortfeasors with respect to the doctrines of contributory negligence and contribution. Burley’s family may now recover the full amount of their noneconomic damages — it is not reduced by the proportion of fault attributed to Burley.

With last week’s decision, plaintiffs will be even more incentivized to press their State law claims against individual officers to seek the gamut of noneconomic damages. Those found guilty of an intentional tort cannot shift liability to negligent actors — they are instead on the hook for the full amount of noneconomic damages.

Justice Chin referenced in the opinion the “deeply troubling and difficult issues involving race and the use of police force,” but noted the opinion was limited to the scope of section 1431.2. The ruling, thus, “does not turn on either the decedent’s race or the fact that a law enforcement officer, rather than a civilian, committed the intentional tort.” In his concurrence, Justice Liu hit these issues head-on, addressing the history of civil rights laws, his critique of the federal qualified immunity doctrine, and calling for relief for “citizens who continue to bear the cruel weight of racism’s stubborn legacy.” In his words, “[a] wrongful death judgment with substantial damages is one way of affirming the worth and dignity of Darren Burley’s life, and I join today’s opinion. But the racial dimensions of this case should not escape our notice.” Justice Liu’s point-by-point analysis of the current civil rights legal landscape is certainly a call for action, and may well result in a Legislative response, whether in development of additional remedies, addressing shortcomings in the law as Justice Liu sees it, or stronger legislative oversight of police. These are all evolving issues, and we will continue to keep you updated on developments.