August 25, 2008

Freedman v. Superior Court: California Court of Appeal Clarifies Procedural Rules Governing Punitive Damages Claims in Healthcare Cases

This isn't one of those headline-grabbing punitive damages cases. It's only for those readers with an abiding interest in the most minute details of California's procedural rules for punitive damages claims in medical malpractice actions.

What? You're still reading? OK, if you really care about this stuff, here's a summary of this published opinion from California's Fourth Appellate District, Division Three (Santa Ana):

Section 425.13(a) of the California Code of Civil Procedure bars a plaintiff from including a punitive damages claim in a complaint based upon a health care provider’s professional negligence. To assert a punitive damages claim in such a case, the plaintiff must file a motion for leave to amend the complaint and show a substantial probability of prevailing on the punitive damages claim. The plaintiff must file the motion within two years after the complaint is
filed, or not less than nine months before trial, whichever is earlier.

In Goodstein v. Superior Court (1996) 42 Cal.App.4th 1635, the Court of Appeal carved out an exception to the strict time limits of section 425.13(a). In that case, which was governed by "fast track" rules, a status conference was held and the clerk set a trial date less than nine months after the status conference. Thus, the plaintiff could not comply with the statutory deadline once trial was set. Moreover, the plaintiff had no meaningful opportunity to object at the status conference, which was conducted not by the court but by a clerk who was merely following the quick trial setting practices that apply to fast track cases.

Freedman was not a fast track case. In Freedman, the trial date was set 11 months after the trial setting conference, so the plaintiff effectively had two months to file a motion to amend the complaint to add a punitive damages claim. But the plaintiff's counsel conducted no discovery and filed no such motion. Less than nine months before trial, the plaintiff hired a new counsel who moved to amend the complaint to add a claim for punitives. The trial court granted the motion, even though it was untimely under section 425.13. The court relied on Goodstein as authority for excusing the plaintiffs' noncompliance with the statute. The defendant petitioned for writ relief and the Court of Appeal summarily denied the petition. The California Supreme Court, however, intervened in the case, granting review and transferring the case back to the Court of Appeal to consider the defendant's arguments the merits.

The Court of Appeal took a closer look at the case and granted the defendant's petition. It ruled that Goodstein was inapplicable because, unlike the plaintiff in Goodstein, the plaintiff here had sufficient time to file a motion under section 425.13 and simply failed to do so. The Court of Appeal, however, did not seem very happy with this result, and expressed its frustration with the strict deadlines established by the Legislature:

The court’s decision to allow leave to amend and continue the trial date appears reasonable. But section 425.13(a) demands strict adherence to the Legislature’s chosen deadline. It may have been better had the Legislature left case management decisions to the sound discretion of trial judges, who are in the best position to weigh the competing interests and circumstances in particular cases. Bright line statutory rules governing the timing nuts and bolts of the trial court’s management of a case, without at least providing exceptions for good cause, have the potential to impair the fair administration of justice. But trial judges are nonetheless obliged to follow the rules established by the Legislature, even if doing so does not always advance a fair resolution of the case.
The plaintiff in Freedman was represented on appeal by appellate specialist Donna Bader, who maintains a blog entitled An Appeal to Reason.