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Vollaro v. Lispi

California Court of Appeal, Second District, Fourth Division

February 26, 2014

Ciara VOLLARO, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
Maureen LISPI, Defendant and Appellant.

[Certified for Partial Publication][*]

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Judith A. Vander Lans, Judge. Affirmed in part and reversed in part with directions. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. NC052344)

COUNSEL

Winet, Patrick & Weaver, Randall L. Winet and Marilyn Perrin, Glendale, for Defendant and Appellant.

Cohen Law Group, H. Jason Cohen; The Kaufman Law Firm and Martin J. Kaufman, Los Angeles, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

OPINION

EDMON, J.[**]

Following a jury trial, the trial court entered judgment in favor of plaintiff Ciara Vollaro for damages sustained in an automobile accident. In this appeal from the judgment, defendant Maureen Lispi challenges the trial court's evidentiary rulings and rejection of her proposed special verdict form that would have required the jury to consider nonparty Noel Meredith's proportionate fault in allocating liability for noneconomic damages. Although we find no evidentiary error, we conclude that the error as to the special verdict form requires a partial new trial on apportionment of noneconomic damages.

BACKGROUND

This action involves a January 9, 2007 automobile accident in which Lispi, the owner and driver of a Mitsubishi Galant, rear-ended a Honda Civic in which Vollaro was a passenger. The Honda's other occupants [168 Cal.Rptr.3d 326] — owner Ann Reed and driver Meredith— are not parties to this action.

When the accident occurred, Lispi stopped to inquire if anyone was injured and to exchange the required information. At the time, Lispi was not informed of any personal injuries, but saw that the Honda's rear bumper and trunk were damaged. Lispi saw no damage to her own vehicle.

On January 8, 2009, Vollaro sued Lispi for personal injury damages. The complaint alleged that on January 9, 2007, Vollaro was riding in the back seat of a Honda Civic " travelling northbound on I-405. After exiting the freeway at Atlantic Ave., the vehicle came to a stop at a yield sign at the bottom of the off-ramp prior to merging right. While stopped, the vehicle was struck from behind by [Lispi's] vehicle, which was being operated by [Lispi] in a negligent, careless, and reckless fashion. As a direct and proximate cause of [Lispi's] negligence, [Vollaro] has suffered physical and emotional injuries and subsequent loss of wages."

At trial, the only eyewitness accounts of the accident were provided by Vollaro and Lispi. Consistent with the allegations of her complaint, Vollaro testified that the Honda was stopped at a yield sign at the bottom of the off-ramp when it was suddenly rear-ended by Lispi's vehicle. She denied that the driver of the vehicle in which she was riding made a sudden, unexpected stop.

Lispi testified that when she exited the northbound 405 freeway at Atlantic Boulevard, the Honda was stopped at a yield sign at the bottom of the off-ramp, where it was waiting to merge onto the street. Lispi stopped behind the Honda. When the Honda moved forward, Lispi moved forward and stopped at the yield sign. Lispi looked over her shoulder and saw no oncoming traffic. Lispi looked forward and saw that the Honda was moving forward. As Lispi began accelerating, however, the Honda " stopped suddenly" in front of her for no apparent reason. Lispi stated, " After I accelerated I hit my brakes to stop my car and I was unable to avoid hitting the car in front of me." [1] Lispi did not see a turn signal, obstacle, animal, person, vehicle, or any other reason for the Honda " to stop suddenly" on the roadway.

Lispi testified that, although she was responsible for rear-ending the Honda, Meredith also was at fault for making a sudden stop for no apparent reason. In addition, Lispi testified that she did not believe Vollaro's injuries— a hernia that was surgically repaired [2] and a rib injury that will require future surgery— were sustained in the accident.

Based on Lispi's theory that both drivers were at fault in causing the accident, she submitted a proposed special verdict form that would have required the jury to consider the fault of each driver for purposes of allocating liability for Vollaro's noneconomic damages. Lispi requested special verdict findings as to: (1) whether Lispi was negligent and, if so, whether her negligence was a cause of injury to Vollaro; (2) whether Meredith was negligent and, if so, whether his negligence was a cause of injury to Vollaro; and, if both drivers were found to be negligent, (3) the percentage of fault attributable to each driver.

[168 Cal.Rptr.3d 327] Vollaro objected to Lispi's proposed special verdict form, claiming that California law prohibits the apportionment of liability for noneconomic damages to a nonparty. Vollaro also argued that the sole evidence of Meredith's alleged negligence— Lispi's testimony that the Honda stopped suddenly for no apparent reason— was legally insufficient to support an allocation of fault to Meredith.

In response, Lispi argued that California law permits the apportionment of noneconomic damages to a nonparty. Lispi further objected that, unless the jury made special verdict findings on Meredith's proportionate fault, her arguments to the jury " that there is a minimum ...


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