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Lucio Corral Rodriguez, Individually and As Successor In v. County of Stanislaus; City of

July 5, 2011

LUCIO CORRAL RODRIGUEZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SUCCESSOR IN INTEREST TO THE DECEDENTS, MARICRUZ CORRAL, IVAN ALEXANDER CORRAL, AND LUCIO ANTHONY CORRAL,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
COUNTY OF STANISLAUS; CITY OF MODESTO; CITY OF RIVERBANK; STATE OF CALIFORNIA, AMTRAK CALIFORNIA; BURLINGTON NORTHERN SANTA FE RAILWAY; AND DOES 1 TO 200,
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Oliver W. Wanger United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER RE POST-TRIAL MOTIONS. (DOC. 452, 454)

I.INTRODUCTION

This case arises from a collision between a train operated by National Railroad Passenger Corporation ("Amtrak") and a vehicle driven by Lucio Corral Rodriguez‟s ("Plaintiff") wife, Maricruz Corral, resulting in the death of Maricruz Corral and Plaintiff‟s two children (together, "Decedents"). Plaintiff sued several defendants, including Amtrak, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway ("BNSF"), and the State of California, Department of Transportation (together, "Defendants").

Before the court for decision are post-trial motions. Plaintiff moves for (1) entry of judgment against Amtrak and the State of California and (2) accrual of interest from the date of filing of the jury‟s original verdict. (Doc. 452). Defendants filed an opposition seeking a setoff and sanctions (Doc. 453), to which Plaintiff replied (Doc. 456). Defendants also move for judgment as a matter of law regarding punitive damages (Doc. 454), which Plaintiff opposed (Doc. 455). A hearing on the motions was held May 23, 2011. The parties submitted supplemental briefs on the issue of pre and post judgment interest. Docs. 464, 465.

II.BACKGROUND

On December 8, 2010, a twelve-day jury trial began. On the second day of trial, the County of Stanislaus settled its case with Plaintiff for $800,000. The trial culminated with a unanimous jury verdict on January 14, 2011. The jury made findings that: (1) Amtrak was negligent in operating the train; (2) Amtrak‟s negligence caused Plaintiff‟s harm; (3) Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway were not negligent in the maintenance and/or use of its property; and (4) Maricruz Corral was 50% at fault. The jury awarded Plaintiff the following damages for Amtrak‟s negligence: (1) $431,359 for economic damages Decedents would have contributed in lifetime financial support; (2) $432,000 for the reasonable value of household services Decedents would have provided; and (3) $3,000,000 in non-economic damages.

III.DISCUSSION

A.Plaintiff's Motion for Proposed Judgment

1.Amount of Judgment

Plaintiff moves for entry of judgment in his favor in the amount of $1,931,694.50, which represents the jury's total damage award of $3,863,389, reduced by 50% (the percentage of Marricruz Corral's comparative fault). Amtrak argues that, pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure § 877, the damage award should be reduced by the full amount of the County of Stanislaus' $800,000 settlement.

California Code of Civil Procedure § 877 imposes joint and several liability on joint tortfeasors. Section 877 states in relevant part:

Where a release, dismissal with or without prejudice, or a covenant not to sue or not to enforce judgment is given in good faith before verdict or judgment to one or more of a number of tortfeasors claimed to be liable for the same tort, or to one or more other co-obligors mutually subject to contribution rights, it shall have the following effect:

(a) It shall not discharge any other such party from liability unless its terms so provide, but it shall reduce the claims against the others in the amount stipulated by the release, the dismissal or the covenant, or in the amount of the consideration paid for it whichever is the greater. Cal. Code Civ. P. § 877 (emphasis added). Amtrak asks the court to apply Section 877(a) to reduce the judgment by the full amount of the County of Stanislaus' $800,000 settlement.

The Fair Responsibility Act of 1986, enacted by Proposition 51 and codified in California Civil Code § 1431.2, provides in pertinent part:

In any action for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death, based upon principles of comparative fault, the liability of each defendant for non-economic damages shall be several only and shall not be joint. Each defendant shall be liable only for the amount of non-economic damages allocated to that defendant in direct proportion to that defendant's percentage of fault, and a separate judgment shall be rendered against that defendant for that amount.

Cal. Civ. Code § 1431.2(a). California appellate courts have held that Section 1431.2(a) eliminated joint and several liability for non-economic damages but retained it for economic damages. See e.g., Espinoza v. Machonga, 9 Cal.App.4th 268, 272, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 498 (1992) ("Under subdivision (a) of Civil Code section 1431.2, a personal injury defendant is no longer liable for any amount of the plaintiff's non-economic damages which exceeds the percentage of those non-economic damages attributable to that defendant."); Hoch v. Allied-Signal, Inc. , 24 Cal.App.4th 48, 63-65, 29 Cal.Rptr.2d 615 (1994).

Amtrak acknowledges that California appellate courts and commentators have not interpreted California Code of Civil Procedure § 877 to require set-off of non-economic damages after enactment of Section 1431.2(a) and that the California Supreme Court has not opined on the matter. Amtrak contends that the California appellate court decisions should be ignored and instead the court should apply Justice Croskey's concurring opinion in Bostick v. Flex Equipment Co., Inc. , 147 Cal.App.4th 80, 54 Cal.Rptr.3d 28 (2007):

I conclude further that despite the application of Proposition 51, the setoff required by Code of Civil Procedure section 877 (section 877) for a good faith settlement applies to both economic and non-economic damages, contrary to Espinoza v. Machonga (1992) 9 Cal.App.4th 268, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 498 ( Espinoza ), Hoch v. Allied--Signal, Inc. (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 48, 29 Cal.Rptr.2d 615 (Hoch), and their progeny. In my view, both the language of section 877 and the purposes of the statute compel the conclusion that section 877 requires a setoff of the non-economic portion of a good faith settlement to the extent necessary to avoid a double recovery by the plaintiff. I suggest a formula to reduce the plaintiff's claims against non-settling defendants in accordance with section 877 and determine the amounts of economic and non-economic damages to award the plaintiff in an action subject to Proposition 51.

Id. at 100. Amtrak asks that the court predict that the California Supreme Court, if confronted with the setoff issue, would follow Justice Croskey's concurrence and reject the numerous appellate court decisions that hold to the contrary. In essence, Amtrak seeks to rewrite California Civil Code Section § 1431.2 and violate the law of precedent that a federal trial court is bound by the decision of an intermediate state court applying state law if the state Supreme Court has not decided the issue. See Estrella v. Brandt , 682 F.2d 814, 817 (9th Cir. 1982) ("Under the Erie doctrine, a federal court sitting in diversity is not free to reject a state judicial rule of law merely because it has not received the sanction of the state's highest court, but it must ascertain from all available data what the state law is and apply it.").

Applying Espinoza , the setoff attributable to economic damages is calculated by first determining the percentage of Plaintiff's damage award attributable to economic damages, or 22.347% ($863,359 divided by $3,863,359). See Espinoza , 9 Cal.App.4th at 276-77. This percentage is applied to the settlement amount to determine the portion of the settlement amount attributable to economic damages, or $178,778.93 ($800,000 x 22.347%). See id. Plaintiff's judgment against Amtrak is reduced by $178,778.93.

Amtrak's liability to Plaintiff is computed as follows:

$863,359.00 Total economic damages - $431,679.50 Reduction of economic damages by Maricruz Corral's 50% fault - $178,778.93 Reduction of economic damages by economic portion of County of Stanislaus settlement $3,000,000.00 Total non-economic damages - $1,500,000.00 Reduction of non-economic damages by Maricruz Corral's 50% fault $1,752,900.57 Amtrak's liability to Plaintiff

See id.

Plaintiff's motion for entry of judgment as to the amount of liability and damages is GRANTED. Judgment will be entered for Plaintiff in the amount of $1,752,900.57 ($252,900.57 for economic damages and $1,500,000.00 for non-economic damages).

2.Liability of Amtrak

Plaintiff asks the court to enter judgment against Amtrak. The jury found that Amtrak was negligent in operating the train and Amtrak‟s negligence caused Plaintiff‟s harm. Amtrak does not address its liability in its opposition.

Plaintiff's motion for entry of judgment as to Amtrak's liability is GRANTED.

3.Liability of State of California

Plaintiff moves for entry of judgment against the State of California as the owner of the subject train. Plaintiff contends that California Vehicle Code §§ 17150 and 17002 impose derivative liability on the State of California for injuries caused by its train. California Vehicle Code § 17150 provides:

Every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for death or injury to person or property resulting from a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the operation of the motor vehicle, in the business of the owner or otherwise, by any person using or ...


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