California Court Upholds Decision Car Insurer Not Liable for Negligence Per Se, Plaintiff Prevented From Claiming Car Not Total Loss After Accident

Following a motor vehicle collision, the plaintiffs took inconsistent positions regarding the damage to their vehicle.  In a recent decision, the California appellate court affirmed the lower court’s judgment in favor of the insurance company.  Not only did the court find that evidence had been properly excluded regarding whether the plaintiff’s vehicle was a total loss, but also the court upheld the finding that the insurer was not liable on the claim of negligence per se.

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The defendant in this case had been insured, and the company took responsibility for damage to the plaintiffs’ car after a motor vehicle accident.  The plaintiffs had repaired their vehicle, but the insurer notified the DMV that it had been a total loss salvage vehicle. This notification took place before reaching a settlement with the plaintiffs.

After the notification, the plaintiffs were unable to register their car and temporarily lost use of it until Mercury informed the DMV of the error. One of the plaintiffs then suffered a heart attack, allegedly from the stress of this dispute with the insurer and the effect of the DMV notification.

During trial, the insurer precluded the plaintiffs from introducing evidence their car was not a total loss. They argued that before suing the insurer, the plaintiffs had alleged the vehicle was a total loss in small claims court. They had received a favorable judgment.

During trial, the court had granted judgment for the insurer on three causes of action and dismissed three. The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the court had improperly excluded evidence that their car was not a total loss.  They also alleged the court erred in granting the motion for judgment on the pleadings on the negligence per se claim for violating Vehicle Code section 11515.

Here, the appellate court stated that substantial evidence supported the lower court’s finding that the plaintiffs had sought damages for the total value of their vehicle in small claims court, receiving a judgment based on that position.  The appellate court continued to state that the plaintiffs had taken an inconsistent position in superior court, since there they sought damages for the cost of repair.

The appellate court stated that the lower court properly granted the insurer’s motion to estop the plaintiffs from taking a position that was contrary to their earlier position in small claims court litigation. Judicial estoppel is a doctrine that prevents parties from taking a position and later gaining an advantage by taking an incompatible position.  For judicial estoppel to apply, certain requirements must be met:  (1) the party has taken two positions; (2) the positions were taken in judicial proceedings; (3) the party successfully asserted the first position; (4) the two positions are inconsistent; and (5) the first position was not taken due to ignorance or fraud.

On appeal, the court does not reweigh evidence but assesses whether there has been an abuse of discretion. Essentially, the reviewing court here looked at whether substantial evidence supported the trial court’s findings that the plaintiffs took a total loss position, and the small claims court judgment had been based on that position.  If so, the plaintiffs’ claim failed.

In the small claims complaint, the appellate court stated that the plaintiffs sought damages for the total value of their vehicle.  The judgment had been based on their position of total loss.  It was proper, according to the appellate court, for the trial court to apply judicial estoppel to exclude evidence that the plaintiffs’ vehicle was not a total loss.

Regarding the claim of negligence per se, the court stated that the insurance company had sent the notice to the DMV before settling with the plaintiffs, and this action violated the Vehicle Code.  To show negligence per se, the defendant must have violated a statute, which proximately caused an injury of the kind the statute meant to prevent, and the person suffering was an intended beneficiary of the statute.

Here, there had not been a settlement. The insurer’s offer to pay came before they notified the DMV that the plaintiffs had accepted a settlement for the total loss salvage value of the car.  The statute, Vehicle Code section 11515, is directed at notifying the DMV that a car is not drivable. The court stated that the plaintiffs, who had alleged medical conditions resulting from the stress of dealing with the situation, were not members of the class of persons intended to be protected by the statute.

The court also stated there had not been evidence that the violation of the statute caused the plaintiff’s heart attack.  While the insurer may have violated their duty to report to the DMV only those total loss salvage vehicles for which a settlement had been accepted, here, the error in notifying the DMV was not actionable under negligence per se.

The court affirmed the judgment in favor of the insurer.

The motor vehicle collision attorneys at Sharifi Firm help injured individuals and their families.  We assist clients throughout Southern California as they pursue compensation from at-fault parties, proving the full extent of harm resulting from a crash. To schedule a no-obligation consultation with a dedicated attorney in our office, telephone 1-866-422-7222 or complete our online form.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Upholds Judgment in Favor of City of Pasadena Because Plaintiff Failed to Provide Full Record on Appeal Regarding His Wrongful Death Claim, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, May 8, 2017

California Appeals Court Affirms Jury Verdict Entitling Defendant to Summary Judgment in Case Centered on “Battle of Experts” Following Motor Vehicle Collision, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, May 5, 2017

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