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Antonio Puerta v. Anna Berta Torres

May 25, 2011


Appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court of Orange County, Robert J. Moss, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. 30-2008-00109105)

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



Affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Antonio Puerta and Anna Berta Torres were in a car accident in the City of Westminster. Puerta sued Torres, acting as his own attorney. After a one-day trial, the court found in Torres's favor. Puerta now appeals, arguing the court failed to provide a statement of decision after his timely request. He also argues the court's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, that the court wrongly excluded evidence and improperly granted Torres costs under Code of Civil Procedure section 998 and section 1033.5.*fn2

With respect to section 998, Puerta argues that Torres's offer failed to comply with the statute, which requires the offer to include "a provision that allows the accepting party to indicate acceptance of the offer by signing a statement that the offer is accepted." Whether an offer without such a provision is valid is apparently an issue of first impression in the published case law. As we discuss below, we are bound by the plain language of the statute and therefore agree with Puerta that Torres's offer was invalid.

On all other issues, we find no merit in Puerta's arguments and affirm the trial court's judgment. We therefore order the trial court to enter a new judgment excluding the costs awarded to Torres pursuant to section 998.



A. Underlying Facts and Trial

We draw the following from the record, and we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, resolving all conflicts in her favor. (Cassim v. Allstate Ins. Co. (2004) 33 Cal.4th 780, 787.)

In July 2008, Puerta filed the instant case against Torres in Orange County Superior Court. The form complaint alleged personal injury and property damage arising from a motor vehicle accident on June 19, 2007, and sought damages according to proof. The case was heard at a bench trial on January 5, 2010.

Puerta testified at trial that he was driving his car, an Acura, on Beach Boulevard in Westminster when Torres's sport utility vehicle (SUV) stopped in front of him. Puerta believed that Torres was attempting to turn into a gas station on the right. Her car was about one yard away from his and partly turned into the gas station entrance. But she was unable to complete the turn into the gas station, according to Puerta, instead backing up and colliding with the front of his car. Puerta claimed that he honked his horn while Torres was backing up, and despite being only a yard away, hit his car at a speed of 30 miles per hour. Thereafter, Torres turned right on a street into an alley behind the gas station, and Puerta followed her. Puerta testified that Torres did not admit hitting his car "with words," but claimed that her actions constituted an admission that she had hit his car. He testified that she stated the damage was trivial and it was not worth exchanging insurance information. A police officer responded, and the report the officer prepared did not attribute fault to either party.

Puerta claimed injuries to his neck and arm and damage to his vehicle. He received no medical care immediately after the accident, but saw a doctor five to ten days later, when he was in Spain. He was told he could immobilize his arm and take anti-inflammatory medication. He saw another doctor, Dr. Damoui, in December 2007, but he could not remember if he told that doctor about pain resulting from the accident. (According to the doctor's subsequent testimony, he did not.) Thereafter he saw Dr. Gahn and another chiropractor, receiving treatment from January through June 2008. He saw Damoui's partner, Dr. Lever, in September 2008, and Lever noted he had been in an accident a year earlier and claimed numbness in his hand as a result. Lever diagnosed "idiopathic peripheral neuropathy." Damoui saw Puerta again in January 2009, and he noted that Puerta reported neck pain since an accident two years earlier.

With regard to the damage to his car, Puerta could not state for sure if some of the damage had predated the accident. After looking at a photograph of Torres's SUV, he stated he did not see any "substantial" damage to it.

Puerta's son, who was nine years old at the time of trial in January 2010 (and was six at the time of the incident) testified in a manner consistent with Puerta's testimony, specifically, that "a girl backed up and crashed."

Cynthia Moranville, the officer who responded to the scene, was called to testify as a witness for the defense. Her primary duty was traffic accident investigation, and she had 18 years experience. She testified that she responded to the accident. Torres told her that she was turning into the gas station to follow her daughter, who was getting gas, stopped because of traffic in front of her, and pulled through to the alleyway behind the station to wait for her daughter. While she was waiting, Puerta approached her and said that she had hit his car, and Torres called the police.

Moranville also testified that she inspected the vehicles involved. She looked at each vehicle for "signs of damage or disturbance within the dust or markings, and I found absolutely nothing." She had found no evidence that an impact had occurred. Puerta did not complain of any injuries at the scene. On cross-examination, Moranville ...

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