Appellate Court Holds Sham Pleading Did Not Apply in California Car Accident Case When Plaintiffs Were Unclear on Factual Basis for Liability

Recently, the California Court of Appeals addressed the issue of sham pleading, specifically whether the plaintiffs in a personal injury lawsuit had run afoul of the requirement that all pleading be truthful. The court examined which facts were available to the plaintiffs at the time they filed their complaint.  Since the facts were inconsistently alleged, the appellate court examined whether that was due to the fact that the plaintiffs were unclear on the basis of liability. 

Following a car accident in Fresno, plaintiffs Shelly and Vincent Baron brought a lawsuit against Gerald Galvin, the driver of a vehicle that rear-ended them, and the City of Mendota. They included detailed allegations about the accident in their general negligence cause of action.  The defendants filed a demurrer to the complaint.

The appellate court stated that after an appeal from a lower court’s judgment dismissing an action based on sustaining a demurrer, the court looks at whether the complaint states facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action.  When a defect can be cured by an amendment, the court stated, the trial court abuses its discretion in sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend.

The court also stated that amended pleadings supersede the original pleadings, and the truth of factual allegations in an amended pleading is assumed. The sham pleading exception provides that admissions in an original complaint remain in the court’s cognizance, and changing those statements to conceal vulnerabilities is not accepted. In other words, if a plaintiff tries to avoid destructive allegations in a prior complaint by leaving them out without explanation, the court can look at whether the amended complaint is a sham.

The court stated that the rationale of the sham pleading doctrine is to prevent plaintiffs from abusing the process by omitting facts that made a previous complaint defective. In the present case, the appellate court stated that the plaintiffs’ original complaint alleged two different factual allegations, in the alternative.  One involved Mr. Galvin working within the scope of his employment with the City of Mendota, and one involved his being negligent as an individual, with the City responsible for other reasons.  When the plaintiffs omitted the scope of employment allegation, that was not in bad faith.

If a plaintiff does not know which alternative count is appropriate, or is unclear on some of the facts, it is appropriate for the plaintiff to plead alternative counts.  The appellate court stated that this is what occurred in the present case, when inconsistent allegations were set forth, and then one was dropped.  The court also noted that the plaintiffs may not have known whether Mr. Galvin was in fact within the scope of his employment with the City at the time they filed their complaint.  The plaintiffs, in other words, may have been genuinely unclear on an alternative factual basis for liability.

The appellate court concluded that the sham pleading doctrine should not have been applied in this case.

The judgment was reversed, and the appellate court remanded the matter to the trial court with directions to overrule the demurrer to the plaintiffs’ first amended complaint.

The car accident attorneys at Sharifi Firm provide legal representation to victims and their families throughout Southern California in personal injury claims for compensation. Contact our office today for a free consultation at 866-422-7222 or complete our online form.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeal Finds in Favor of Plaintiff in Car Accident Lawsuit When Evidence Fails to Show Plaintiff’s Consent to Settlement Agreement, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, June 9, 2016

California Court of Appeals Allows Cross-Defendant to Recover Costs in Car Accident Lawsuit, Remands to Determine Reasonable and Necessary Costs,Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, February 22, 2016

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