The California law behind Caitlyn Jenner’s fatal car crash lawsuit against the paparazzi

I read in the headlines today that Caitlyn Jenner has sued the paparazzi who were allegedly chasing him at the time of his fatal car crash in February, 2015. So what is that all about? It’s called filing a cross-complaint- a legal tactic which has escalated since California’s adoption of Proposition 51 in 1986.

The accident occurred on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California. As frequently happens on this highway, traffic had come to a sudden stop. Ms. Jenner applied her brakes but was unable to stop before rear ending the vehicle in front of her. But rather than being a simple rear end accident, the car that Jenner struck then veered into oncoming traffic, causing a head on collision, killing the driver of the car that Jenner rear ended, Kim Howe.

Ms. Howe’s family then filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Jenner, claiming that he was negligent in the operation of his vehicle and thereby causing the death of Ms. Howe. Since then Ms. Jenner has filed a cross-complaint against the driver of the car who stopped short in front of Ms. Howe, and against a group of photographers and photo agencies, who he alleged were chasing and harassing Ms. Jenner. He referred to them as the “stalker defendants” and claims that they negligently tailgated his vehicle, distracted him, and contributed to the cause of the fatal collision. Of course, the reason for the filing of this cross-complaint is to reduce his potential damage exposure and shift it to others whom he alleges also contributed to causing the accident.

Before 1986, if a person was negligent and caused an accident, that individual was liable for all of the damages caused by their negligence. If there were multiple persons responsible for causing the accident, then they would share among themselves responsibility for paying all of the damages. However, if one of the parties had ample insurance or assets, and another party did not, the person who was injured could recover all, 100%, of their compensatory damages from any single person who caused the accident. This protected the injured party in those instances where one of the negligent persons was without assets or insurance.

For example, if a death was caused by two persons, one person was a Fed Ex driver and the other was an uninsured driver, the family of the deceased could recover 100% of their damages from the negligent Fed Ex driver’s employer. This was favorable to the innocent person who was injured or killed, as it guarded them against the risk of not being fully compensated by an impecunious defendant.

In 1986, however, the insurance companies led a disingenuous, misleading campaign to change this law. It claimed that negligent defendants were being unfairly made to pay more than their fair share of damages in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits. The campaign was successful and Proposition 51 passed. It was codified as Civil Code section 1413.2. Now, a negligent defendant can shift some of the blame to another party and escape responsibility for the damages he caused, even if the other party is poor or otherwise unable to fully compensate the injured party or family. This is the basis of cross-complaint filed by Jenner against the photographers.

As an Alameda personal injury lawyer , I see this type of legal chicanery on a frequent basis. In fact under California law, the negligent defendant does not even have to sue the other negligent party to get the benefit of Proposition 51. When a case goes to trial, the jury will be asked to determine whether the defendant is negligent. However, defendants will frequently also request that the jury assess whether anyone else, identified or not, was also negligent. If the jury finds that another person was also negligent, the defendant’s damages will be reduced accordingly—even if that other allegedly negligent person is not in the courtroom as a defendant, identifiable or otherwise judgment proof. What was sold as a reform to the justice system in 1986, has been disclosed for what it was. It is simply a way for negligent parties to shirk their legal responsibility for damages they cause. The beneficiaries of this change in the law, of course, have primarily been insurance companies, and large corporations.

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