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State Supreme Court Further Limits Effects of Prop. 213

From Associated Press

The heirs of an uninsured driver killed in a crash can sue for damages beyond the limits placed by California voters on lawsuits by the uninsured drivers themselves, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

It was the second ruling in a week to limit the scope of Proposition 213, an insurer-backed 1996 initiative that barred uninsured drivers from recovering damages for “noneconomic” harm such as pain and suffering. The measure allowed them to sue only for economic damages such as wage losses.

On Aug. 2, the court ruled unanimously that Proposition 213 did not limit damages to an uninsured driver whose injuries were caused by a defective car rather than another driver.

In Monday’s case, the parents of Melissa Acuna, who was killed in a rear-end collision, sued the driver of the other car, seeking damages for loss of her “care, comfort and society.”

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The driver, Benjamin Horwich, sought to have the suit dismissed under Proposition 213, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Marlene Kristovich refused to dismiss the claims and was upheld by an appellate court. Monday’s ruling returns the case to Superior Court for a possible trial.

Monday’s 6-1 ruling said the restrictions applied only to a suit by the uninsured driver and not to a suit by family members seeking damages for the driver’s wrongful death. Such suits typically seek damages for noneconomic losses, such as loss of the dead relative’s love and companionship.

Proposition 213 was aimed at “the unlawful conduct of uninsured motorists who, at the expense of law-abiding citizens, could recover for noneconomic losses while flouting the financial responsibility laws,” said the opinion by Justice Janice Rogers Brown.

The driver’s heirs, she said, “do not contribute to this perceived unfairness, nor are they in a position to rectify it.” She said the ballot language mentioned suits by an uninsured driver or owner but did not mention the driver’s heirs.

Dissenting Justice Ming Chin interpreted the ballot language differently and said applying the restrictions to a driver’s heirs would give the driver a greater incentive to buy insurance, one purpose of Proposition 213.

M. Scott Radovich, the parents’ lawyer, said Acuna had been insured but could not afford premiums that more than doubled when she moved to Los Angeles.

“It is tragic that the insurance companies get all the breaks from Proposition 213, and yet fail to offer low-cost and basic automobile insurance to working-class Californians,” Radovich said. He said the ruling would affect hundreds of cases.

Jon Eisenberg, an insurance lawyer representing Horwich, saw a silver lining in his defeat: “The major Proposition 213 issues are now settled. It’s constitutional and we know its scope.”

The court previously denied review of an appellate ruling upholding the measure.


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