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Joel Guthrie v. County of Sutter

November 29, 2011

JOEL GUTHRIE, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
COUNTY OF SUTTER, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



(Super. Ct. No. CVCS10-1024)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blease , Acting P. J.

Guthrie v. County of Sutter

CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

Joel Guthrie appeals from an order denying his petition for relief from the tort claim filing requirements of Government Code*fn1 section 911.2. We find no abuse of discretion and affirm the order.

BACKGROUND

On June 1, 2009, Guthrie's wife was involved in a fatal single car accident on Garden Highway. She was alone in the car.

On January 27, 2010, 57 days after the six-month statutory claim period passed, Guthrie filed a request with the County of Sutter (County) for leave to present a late tort claim. When the County denied the request, Guthrie petitioned the superior court for relief from the tort claim filing requirements, pursuant to section 946.6. He asserted that his failure to present a claim within the six-month time limit imposed by the tort claims law was the result of mistake, inadvertence, surprise and excusable neglect, arising from (1) the fact that the traffic collision report, which was delayed and unavailable until September 2009, was essential to a determination of whether a dangerous condition of public property played a role in the accident; and (2) the emotional trauma Guthrie suffered from losing his wife of 44 years "fundamentally altered his life" and "hindered his ability to work and function as he did before." Moreover, Guthrie argued, the County would not be prejudiced by granting the relief.

In support of his petition, Guthrie, an attorney, averred that, after his wife's death, he "was not able to function as I formerly did. I was depressed, unfocused, and disorganized." He also "had a difficult time working[,]" and "missed deadlines, was unorganized, and had difficulty focusing" on his family law practice, to the point where he was sanctioned for the first time in 10 years by the court for missing deadlines. After the six-month claim period ended, Guthrie spoke with two other attorneys, who advised Guthrie he might have a claim against the County arising from a dangerous condition of property. Within days of that conversation, Guthrie sought to file a late claim.

Guthrie also submitted the declaration of his friend and former law partner Terence Keeley, now a retired judge. Keeley averred that he saw Guthrie frequently after the accident, and noticed that Guthrie "was not functioning in the same fashion" as before: it "was apparent [Guthrie] suffered from emotional trauma caused by his wife's sudden death and evidenced signs of depression. He was irritable and restless, had difficulty concentrating, difficulty in making decisions, was not able to pay attention to or remember details, was unorganized, was pessimistic at times, lost interest in activities he once enjoyed, and clearly was not himself." Keeley expressed "no doubt" that through the beginning of 2010, Guthrie was "significantly depressed, suffered from emotional trauma, and was not able to function at his former personal and professional level."

In opposition, the County argued Guthrie's use of "non-medical conclusory statements regarding [his] mental health" do not establish excusable neglect for failure to follow the required claims procedure particularly where, as here, the potential claimant is an attorney who failed to take any action (including seeking legal counsel) in pursuit of his claim within six months of the accident. The County did not assert it would be prejudiced if Guthrie were granted relief.

Following oral argument, the trial court denied Guthrie's motion, finding that Guthrie failed to establish that his depression and trauma following his wife's death prevented him from taking any step toward presenting a wrongful death claim within the statutory six-month ...


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