April 23, 2008

Little Company of Mary Hospital v. Superior Court: Court of Appeal Limits Punitive Damages Claims In Elder Abuse Actions Against Religious Org.'s

The Second Appellate District, Division Seven, has issued a published opinion dealing with punitive damages in Elder Abuse cases against religious organizations.

The case involves Code of Civil Procedure section 425.14, which provides that no claim for punitive damages may be made against a religious corporation unless the trial court first concludes that the plaintiff will be able to present clear and convincing evidence of malice, oppression, or fraud as required by California's punitive damages statute.

That seems pretty straightforward. This case involves a punitive damages claim against a religious corporation, so section 425.14 applies. End of story, right? Not quite. There's a wrinkle. A similar statute applies to punitive damages claims against health care providers against in any action “arising out of [their] professional negligence.” (See Code of Civ. Proc., section 425.13.) But the California Supreme Court has held that this statute does not apply to professional negligence claims against health care providers if those claims involve elder abuse. (Covenant Care, Inc. v. Superior Court (2004) 32 Cal.4th 771, 777.) The Supreme Court concluded that, since elder abuse claims are are rooted in conduct far more egregious than ordinary professional medical negligence, the special pleading requirements for punitive damages in medical negligence cases don't apply to elder abuse claims.

So this case raised the question whether the reasoning of Covenant Care applies to elder abuse claims against religious corporations. In other words, does the egregious nature of elder abuse override the statutory restrictions on claims against religious corporations? The Court of Appeal said "no":

The plain language of section 425.14, coupled with its legislative history, reflects an unmistakable intent to afford religious organizations protection against unsubstantiated punitive damage claims without regard to the conduct giving rise to the claim. In this way, section 425.14’s protections are broader than those afforded secular health care providers by section 425.13. Because the trial court erred in concluding the pretrial mechanism provided in section 425.14 does not apply in elder abuse cases seeking exemplary damages against religious organizations, we grant the petition for writ of mandate and direct respondent Los Angeles Superior Court to vacate its order denying Little Company of Mary’s motion to strike the punitive damage claim in the underlying action.

Kudos to Justice Perluss for resolving this issue in a clear and concise 11 page opinion.