The legal cases that typically capture the most public attention are those that appear to be ridiculous or outrageous. Probably the most infamous example is the McDonald’s “hot coffee” case. However, for every instance in which a court or jury reaches an outrageous decision, dozens of cases are ignored where the jury or court “got it right.” One such case is Espinosa v. Kirkwood, decided by the Second District Court of Appeal on June 23, 2010.
The case was a personal injury action by Michael Espinosa and Angel Vertiz arising from an automobile accident. Espinosa and Vertiz sued Kenneth Kirkwood, the driver of the car in which they were passengers at the time of the accident. The twist in the case was that the trio had just committed a residential burglary, for which they were later convicted, and were fleeing the police when Kirkwood’s car crashed into three other vehicles about a mile from the location of the burglary.
At this point, you must certainly be feeling sorry for poor Espinosa and Vertiz for having suffered bodily injuries. In the case that makes the cover of the supermarket tabloids, the duo recovers millions. In real life, the pair gets nothing.
In the trial court, Kirkwood (or more likely his insurance company) moved for summary judgment on the ground the case was barred by Civil Code section 3333.3, which says:
In any action for damages based on negligence, a person may not recover any damages if the plaintiff's injuries were in any way proximately caused by the plaintiff's commission of any felony, or immediate flight therefrom, and the plaintiff has been duly convicted of that felony.
The trial court granted summary judgment against Espinosa and Vertiz. Unhappy with that result, they appealed the decision. Plaintiffs argued that the statute required proof that the felony or flight caused the injuries. The court of appeal disagreed, stating:
The purpose of the initiative would be defeated if a defendant was required to prove that the actual commission of the felony or flight caused the injuries. To the contrary, the intent of the drafters [of section 333.3] was to require plaintiffs who are felons to assume the risk of any injuries sustained during the commission of a crime or during the flight to avoid apprehension for the crime.
Not surprisingly, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s injuries resulted from their act of flight. The court also noted that the act of fleeing makes collisions of this type highly foreseeable. Finally, the court noted that their status as passengers in the getaway car did not change anything because their own conduct in committing the crime and getting into the car caused their injuries.
So, Espinosa and Vertiz were unlucky and got no money in their personal injury action. However, maybe they’ll get lucky and spill excessively hot coffee on themselves in prison.
Michael M. McMahon