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Frank D. Brown v. Desert Christian Center

March 17, 2011

FRANK D. BROWN, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
DESERT CHRISTIAN CENTER, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Kern County. Sidney P. Chapin, Judge. Super. Ct. No. CV-265676

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kane, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

In this personal injury case, defendant Desert Christian Center was successful in proving its affirmative defense that the injuries alleged by plaintiff Frank D. Brown were within the exclusive jurisdiction of the workers' compensation system. A judgment of dismissal was entered and defendant sought to recover its costs as the prevailing party under Code of Civil Procedure section 1032.*fn1 Plaintiff moved to strike defendant's memorandum of costs, asserting that since defendant prevailed on the ground of lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the trial court lacked jurisdiction to award costs. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion and defendant now appeals from that order. Defendant contends on appeal that the trial court had jurisdiction to award costs under the particular circumstances of this case. We agree and accordingly reverse the trial court's order striking the memorandum of costs.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On December 14, 2006, plaintiff was injured at defendant's building site in Ridgecrest, California, when he fell from a ladder while painting and doing paint preparation work. On November 14, 2008, plaintiff filed a complaint in Kern County Superior Court against defendant, seeking the recovery of damages for his personal injuries. The complaint included causes of action for premises liability and general negligence, and alleged as supporting facts that while plaintiff was working for defendant as an unlicensed contractor*fn2 he sustained serious personal injuries as a result of defendant's negligent failure to provide a safe work environment.

Defendant filed an answer consisting of a general denial and several affirmative defenses. The affirmative defenses included a ninth affirmative defense, which asserted that plaintiff's exclusive remedy for his injuries was workers' compensation benefits.

On October 14, 2009, plaintiff filed a first amended complaint. The first amended complaint specified that the injury occurred when plaintiff fell from a ladder and suffered a severe fracture of the right femur. The amended pleading also alleged that plaintiff was not covered by defendant's workers' compensation insurance policy and/or that he was informed that such coverage would not apply to him.*fn3 Defendant's answer to the first amended complaint once again asserted as a ninth affirmative defense that plaintiff's exclusive remedy was to seek benefits available to him under the workers' compensation system.
The case came on regularly for trial on November 23, 2009. Before proceeding to other issues in the case, the trial court convened an evidentiary hearing or mini-trial to determine the merits of defendant's ninth affirmative defense and to exercise "its inherent power to inquire into its subject matter jurisdiction."*fn4 After hearing evidence that included a number of exhibits and the testimony of several witnesses, the trial court found that defendant's ninth affirmative defense was meritorious. Specifically, the trial court held that plaintiff's injuries were sustained within the course and scope of his employment with defendant, no exemption to workers' compensation coverage applied, and plaintiff was covered by defendant's workers' compensation policy. Therefore, workers' compensation was plaintiff's exclusive remedy, the matter came within the exclusive jurisdiction of the workers' compensation system, and the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. In the trial court's written order filed on December 31, 2009, the action was dismissed based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. A judgment of dismissal was thereafter entered.

Defendant filed a memorandum of costs by which it sought the recovery of allowable costs pursuant to section 1032 as the prevailing party in the case. The total amount of costs claimed in the memorandum was $7,909.88, the majority of which consisted of deposition costs.

Plaintiff responded by filing a motion to strike the entire memorandum of costs on the ground that no costs could be awarded by the trial court because it did not have subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court agreed that it lacked jurisdiction to award costs and granted the motion to strike the memorandum of costs. Defendant timely appealed from that order.

DISCUSSION

The question of whether or not the trial court had jurisdiction to award costs under the circumstances presented is essentially one of law; thus, we conduct an independent review. (Shisler v. Sanford Sports Cars, Inc. (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 1, 6 (Shisler); ...


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