California Government Claims Act Bars Plaintiffs’ Asbestos Action for Untimely Commencement California Court of Appeals, June 26, 2017

Plaintiffs Sandra Reyes Jauregui and Mario Reyes Jauregui filed a first amended complaint against the City of Pasadena arising from Sandra Jauregui’s mesothelioma. The City demurred to the complaint, arguing that the plaintiffs failed to comply with the Government Claims Act, requiring presentation of the claim to the City within six months of the date of Sandra’s mesothelioma diagnosis. The court agreed and issued a writ sustaining the demurrer.

The plaintiffs originally filed a complaint against various defendants due to her father’s asbestos exposure while working as a mechanic at different sites, including the City of Pasadena from 1980-87. One year after filing the original complaint the plaintiffs added the City as a defendant, on October 14, 2016. Under the Government Claims Act (Gov. Code, § 810 et seq.), before commencing an action against a public entity, a plaintiff must present the claim to the entity within six months of “the date upon which the cause of action would be deemed to have accrued within the meaning of the statute of limitations which would be applicable thereto.” The first amended complaint stated that on August 22, 2016, the plaintiffs presented their claim to the City in compliance with this Act.

On November 17, 2016, the City demurred, arguing that the plaintiffs failed to allege facts demonstrating or excusing compliance with the Act. The City argued the cause of action accrued on September 25, 2015, the date when Sandra was diagnosed. The claim was not presented to the City until 11 months after the diagnosis. The plaintiffs argued there was no limit on their claim presentation; the accrual of the underlying claim was defined as the trigger date for the underlying limitations period, which was never triggered. The plaintiffs also argued that “accrual” had two meanings – (1) ripeness and (2) beginning of the limitations period. Here, the plaintiffs argued that “accrual” meant the latter. On December 15, 2016, the trial court overruled the demurrer without explanation.

The appellate court analyzed the term “accrual.” The plaintiffs were obligated to present their claims against the City “not later than six months after the accrual of the cause of action.” (Gov. Code, § 911.2.)4 “For the purpose of computing the time limits prescribed by [Government Code section] 911.2 … , the date of the accrual of a cause of action to which a claim relates is the date upon which the cause of action would be deemed to have accrued within the meaning of the statute of limitations …” (Gov. Code, § 901.) Thus, to calculate the claim presentation deadline, the court first determined the date the cause of action accrued under the applicable statute of limitations.

Under California statutes, the limitations period did not begin until the asbestos-related injuries caused a permanent termination of the plaintiff’s ability to perform his or her job; for retirees and the unemployed, the limitations period never commenced. The parties agreed here that Sandra was never disabled within this meaning, thus the limitations period never began. However, the statute of limitation did not use the term “accrued.” This term was used in a different section, which stated that “Civil actions, without exception, can only be commenced within the periods prescribed in this title, after the cause of action shall have accrued ….” Thus, accrual was a prerequisite to the running of the limitation period.

Generally, a cause of action accrued when it was complete with all of its elements – wrongdoing, harm, and causation. An exception to the general rule regarding the initial accrual of a claim was the discovery rule – the accrual of a cause of action was delayed until the plaintiff discovered, or has reason to discover, the cause of action. The discovery rule applied to delay the accrual of a cause of action for an asbestos-related disease. In undertaking this analysis, the court found that, in the context of statutes of limitations, “accrual” of an action was used in the sense of ripeness.

Thus, the court concluded that as used in Government Code section 901, the date upon which the cause of action would be deemed to have accrued within the meaning of the statute of limitations is the date on which the cause of action became actionable. Here, the cause of action against the City accrued when Sandra discovered or reasonably should have discovered that she suffered a compensable injury. This date was no later than the date she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, September 25, 2015. Since the plaintiffs did not submit their claim until more than 10 months after Sandra was diagnosed, the trial court should have sustained the City’s demurrer because the plaintiffs’ action against the City was barred. This interpretation did not bar an action by plaintiff who, years after exposure, discovers a compensable injury; it required only that after making the discovery, the claim be promptly presented to the government entity sought to be held responsible.

Read the full decision here.

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