California Court of Appeals Rejects Sanctions Against Defendant in Personal Injury Lawsuit Because Second Summary Judgment Motion was not “Objectively Unreasonable”

Recently, the California Court of Appeal addressed the issue of monetary sanctions in a personal injury lawsuit involving allegations of negligence against multiple defendants..  One defendant moved for summary judgment, and after the plaintiff amended his complaint, the defendant moved again for summary judgment. The lower court found the motions duplicative and awarded sanctions to the plaintiff.  But on appeal, the court found that the filing was not objectively unreasonable and reversed the award of sanctions.

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Adam Martinez sued Southern California Edison and other “Doe” defendants on the grounds that their negligence contributed to his injuries when a metal pole on a ladder contacted Edison’s power lines.  Later, Mr. Martinez named Edison’s vegetation-maintenance contractor, Asplundh Tree Expert Company, as Doe 1.  Asplundh denied liability and moved for summary judgment.

Mr. Martinez amended his complaint but failed to name Asplundh.  Asplundh contended it did not owe a duty of care to keep the public or Mr. Martinez safe from power lines, and his injuries were caused by his own negligence when he placed a 19-foot metal tent pole in contact with a power line.  The trial court denied Asplundh’s summary judgment motion, finding there were triable material issues of fact regarding the extent of Asplundh’s responsibility.

Asplundh then filed a second summary judgment or summary adjudication motion on the grounds that there was no cause of action against them.  Mr. Martinez responded with a motion for sanctions, contending there were no new facts or circumstances justifying the relitigation of resolved issues.  Asplundh then stated that their second motion was premised on the new complaint, with new allegations and a new cause of action.  Mr. Martinez contended the only change in the first amended complaint was the addition of an allegation against the Public Utilities Commission.

The trial court granted the sanctions motion on the grounds that there was a previous motion for summary judgment that was heard by the court.  The trial court stated that since the first amended complaint contained no new theories of liability, Asplundh improperly filed the second motion for summary judgment.  The trial court found the second summary judgment motion was duplicative and ordered sanctions in the amount of $6,400 against Asplundh.

In their discussion, the appeals court stated that California Code of Civil Procedure Section 128.7 provides that a trial court may impose sanctions for conduct that has violated subdivision (b). That section provides that all claims, defenses, and legal contentions must be warranted by existing law.  The purpose is to deter filing abuses, rather than to compensate those affected.

The issue before the appellate court was whether substantial evidence supported Mr. Martinez’s allegation that his first amended complaint contained no new theories of Asplundh’s liability.  If so, Asplundh’s second motion for summary judgment was improper under section 128.7, and an objectively unreasonable filing is sanctionable conduct.

Here, the court rejected Mr. Martinez’s contention that Asplundh’s second motion made the same arguments as its first motion.  The court stated that Asplundh should not have moved for summary judgment initially, since the trial court had found that there were triable issues on the extent of their responsibility. But here, Mr. Martinez alleged that sanctions were necessary because Asplundh’s second motion for summary judgment included nothing new.

The second motion for summary judgment included language seeking summary adjudication of the first amended complaint’s new warning sign allegation.  This allegation was the basis of the punitive damages claim, which included an allegation of willful misconduct.  Here, Asplundh claimed it did not have a duty to maintain or repair the power lines or warning signs. They included language at multiple points in the motion stating they did not have a duty to maintain or repair the high voltage warning signs.  Asplundh also added a new section aimed at discrediting the allegation of willful misconduct.

In conclusion, the court stated that Asplundh’s second summary judgment motion was not “objectively unreasonable,” and therefore it was not a basis for sanctions.

At Sharifi Firm, our Southern California electric shock attorneys provide personalized, efficient representation to injured individuals pursuing claims for compensation. We offer a no-obligation, free consultation and can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Appellate Court Reverses Dismissal of Injury Lawsuit Because Plaintiff’s Failure to Cooperate with Discovery Was Not Shown to be Willful, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, May 19, 2016

California Supreme Court Reviews Statute of Limitations in Medical Malpractice Case, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, May 16, 2016

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