California Court Upholds Judgment Because Evidence Supported Jury’s Determination that Defendants’ Negligence Had Not Been Substantial Factor in Causing Plaintiffs’ Injuries

Recently, a California Court of Appeal affirmed a jury’s finding that the defendants in a premises liability lawsuit had not caused the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries.  In this case, the court found that the jury did not err staircasein holding that the landlords had been negligent, but their conduct had not been a substantial factor in causing the plaintiffs’ injuries. The court looked at the standard that requires a judgment to be supported by substantial evidence and found that in this case, that standard had been met.

On appeal, the court stated they view the record in the light most favorable to the prevailing party.  Here, the facts indicated that Alexandra Lake and her six-year-old daughter lived in a rented apartment in Tiburon, California. The Morphews owned the property and rented out the unit, as well as three others.

In 2010, Ms. Lake’s daughter Jazea fell from the second to last step on an exterior staircase leading from the street level to the entrance to Ms. Lake’s unit. Jazea hit her head on a metal gate at the bottom landing. Neither the stairs nor the handrail were in compliance with the building code. Jazea had abrasions on her forehead, and her cheek was slightly swollen.

Ms. Lake had also complained to the Morphews a few times that there had been sparks coming out of her apartment’s electrical outlets. In 2011, Ms. Lake suffered an electrical shock when she plugged in a space heater. She did not have a burn, but she allegedly experienced pain in her neck and down her left arm and hand.  An electrician discovered that there were improperly sliced, charred wires behind the receptacle where Ms. Lake stated she had suffered the shock.

Ms. Lake brought a lawsuit against the Morphews, alleging that the shock she suffered caused her permanent chronic pain, swelling, and discoloration in her left arm. She sought a million dollars for pain and suffering, and she also claimed to have been prevented from developing work-related videos, valued at $28,000. Jazea, through a guardian ad litem, sought damages for injuries she suffered during her staircase fall.

Medical testimony included experts testifying on behalf of both Ms. Lake and the Morphews.  The jury found that the Morphews had been negligent for failing to disclose facts to Ms. Lake and that they had breached the implied warranty of habitability. The jury did not find that their conduct was a substantial factor in causing Ms. Lake’s or Jazea’s injuries. After a defense judgment was entered, Ms. Lake appealed following the court’s denial of motions for a new trial and judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

The appeals court set forth the rule that when a party argues that insufficient evidence supports a jury verdict, the substantial evidence standard of review applies. If the judgment is free from prejudicial error and supported by evidence considered “substantial,” it will be upheld.

In this case, Ms. Lake had the burden of proving the Morphews’ conduct substantially caused her alleged injuries.  Ms. Lake had produced medical testimony that showed her ailments were attributed to the alleged electric shock. But the jury also heard other testimony, from medical professionals, that discredited her theory of causation. The jury could disbelieve Ms. Lake’s witnesses in favor of the witnesses for the Morphews, and they could find that she did not meet her burden of proof.  The appellate court also stated that the jury could have found that Ms. Lake and her daughter were not credible.

The court also dismissed Ms. Lake’s contention that the Morphews failed to properly maintain the staircase and installed a dangerous gate, which caused Jazea to fall and hurt herself. The court stated that the jury could have been unpersuaded by both Ms. Lake’s and Jazea’s testimony.

Next, the court rejected Ms. Lake’s complaint that the evidence regarding her actual and claimed income was unduly prejudicial. Evidence is prejudicial when there is a substantial likelihood the jury will use it for an illegitimate purpose. But evidence is not prejudicial just because it undermines an opponent’s position.  Since this evidence related directly to Ms. Lake’s truthfulness and the validity of her claimed damages, the appellate court stated it was more probative than prejudicial. The court also stated that it had been within the court’s discretion to find that evidence that bore directly on Ms. Lake’s truthfulness and the validity of her claimed damages was more probative than it was prejudicial.

The court affirmed the judgment.

If you have been injured in an accident in Southern California, the skilled premises liability attorneys at Sharifi Firm can provide guidance and legal representation. Contact us today. We offer a no-obligation consultation and can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

Man Injured in Fall on Steps Outside Apartment Not Entitled to Future Damages; California Court Holds Jury’s Award was Supported by Substantial Evidence, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, October 13, 2016

California Court Reverses Summary Judgment in Favor of Defendant Due to Failure to Meet Burden of Proof Regarding Negligence Claim, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, January 27, 2016

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