General Damages Prohibited

Operating a Motor Vehicle Without Insurance in California Eliminates Right to General Damages

The state of California enacted a statute to encourage people to carry automobile liability insurance by prohibiting a person injured in an automobile accident from recovering general damages (pain, suffering and inconvenience) if the injured person is not insured at the time of the accident. The statute was designed to protect the public from uninsured people.

In Keegan Valentich and Penny Valentich v. United States Of America, United States District Court, E.D. California 2016 WL 3650094, No. 2:14-cv-01902-MCE-CMK (07/08/2016) was faced with a claim by one plaintiff for bodily injury and a second for property damage. The defendant moved for summary judgment because the bodily injury plaintiff was not insured nor was the motor vehicle (a dirt bike) and the owner of the dirt bike answered an interrogatory admitting the the US employee was not negligent.

FACTS

Plaintiffs Keegan Valentich (“Keegan”) and Penny Valentich (“Penny”) jointly filed this suit against the United States (“Defendant”) alleging negligence on the part of a Lassen National Forest Service Employee during a vehicle accident on a Forest Service road. The accident injured Keegan and totaled Penny’s dirt bike. Penny seeks to recover for the damage to her dirt bike while Keegan requests compensation for his medical bills and the pain and suffering he endured as a result of the accident.

On June 6, 2012 a motor vehicle accident occurred between Keegan and a Forest Service employee, Shannon Williams (“Williams”). Keegan was driving a dirt bike on Service Road 43N26 (“Road”) in Lassen National Forest, near Susanville. As he traveled around a curve, he collided head-on with Williams’ pick-up truck, suffering injuries to his wrist and knee. The dirt bike, owned by Penny, was totaled.

The Road is made of gravel and is narrow with sharp curves. Neither Williams, a Service employee for over 20 years, nor Keegan, a frequent dirt bike rider, had time to avoid the collision. Although the Road may be used by the public, it is only open to motor vehicles “licensed under state law for general operation on all public roads within the state.” Individuals operating motor vehicles on the Road must abide by “State traffic law, including State requirements for licensing, registration, and operation of the vehicle.”

Plaintiffs filed this suit against the United States alleging that Williams negligently drove the Service vehicle on the Road when the accident occurred. Besides payment for medical bills, Keegan seeks non-economic compensation for pain and suffering in the amount of $600,000. He has never had a license to operate a motorcycle in California, and the dirt bike was uninsured at the time of the accident. Moreover, a post-accident police report recommended that Keegan be charged with driving without a license and without insurance.

Penny seeks to recover for the value of the dirt bike, which was totaled in the accident. On December 23, 2014, Defendant submitted interrogatories to Penny. The fourth interrogatory read: “State all facts on which you base your claim that Williams negligently operated his vehicle by failing to be attentive to his driving and by failure to maintain a safe speed for this curvy mountain road.”  Plaintiff Penny answered, “I do not claim that Mr. Williams was negligent and I do not believe my son was negligent.”  Penny never amended this response, and discovery closed on October 16, 2015.

ANALYSIS

In its motion for summary judgment against Penny, Defendant argues that Penny’s undisputed interrogatory response disproves an essential element of her claim for negligence. Defendant further argues that because Keegan failed to comply with California’s financial responsibility laws, he cannot recover non-economic damages.

Penny’s Negligence Claim

To succeed in her claim for negligence, Penny must demonstrate that Williams breached his duty to exercise reasonable care while driving the pick-up truck when the accident occurred. Interrogatory responses are admissible for summary judgment purposes. In her response to “Interrogatory Number 4,” Penny avers that Williams was not negligent during the accident. In other words, Penny admits that Williams did not breach his duty of care. Her concession must be accepted as the truth, and thus, no genuine dispute of material fact exists on the question of breach.

Keegan’s Claim for Non-Economic Damages

California Vehicle Code § 16020 states that “[a]ll drivers and all owners of a motor vehicle shall at all times” maintain insurance coverage for the purpose of establishing financial responsibility. In 1996, California passed Proposition 213, commonly referred to as the “Limitations on Recovery to Felons, Uninsured Motorists, and Drunk Drivers Initiative.” Codified as California Civil Code § 3333.4, it states: “(a) Except as provided in subdivision (c), in any action to recover damages arising out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle, a person shall not recover non-economic losses to compensate for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other non pecuniary damages if any of the following applies: ¶ (1) The injured person was at the time of the accident operating the vehicle in violation of Section 23152 or 23153 of the Vehicle Code, and was convicted of that offense. * * * ¶ (3) The injured person was the operator of a vehicle involved in the accident and the operator can not establish his or her financial responsibility as required by the financial responsibility laws of this state.” (emphasis added by the court). Therefore, if the driver of a motor vehicle is uninsured and involved in an accident, he cannot recover non-economic damages.

Dirt bikes are motor vehicles.  The USDC concluded it was faced with a simple issue: Keegan was riding an uninsured dirt bike when the accident occurred. Thus, he may “not recover non-economic losses to compensate for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other non pecuniary damages.”

ZALMA OPINION

Operating a motor vehicle in California without insurance will cause the operator to lose all right to recover general damages – described as non pecuniary damages – and is limited to recover only special damages such as medical bills. Further, it was silly to claim the defendant was not negligent in a sworn answer to interrogatory since that eliminates any chance of proving negligence.

ZALMA-INS-CONSULT                      © 2016 – Barry Zalma

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 49 years in the insurance business.  He now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant and expert witness specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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