Bennett & Sciacca Obtain Summary Judgment in Sonoma County Slip and Fall

Partners Rob Bennett and John Sciacca were recently successful in a Sonoma County lawsuit following an alleged slip and fall in Petaluma on November 9, 2018. John and Rob represented a local business owner who was sued by a visitor to his property. In discovery, plaintiff alleged she came to the defendant’s property to visit a friend and fell after exiting her car and walking a short distance in the defendant’s parking lot. She alleged defendant’s parking lot was in disrepair and that she had fallen as a result of broken pavement and a depression that was eroded into the pavement. As a result of the fall, plaintiff’s main injuries were to her left knee and right hand. In addition, following a failed surgery on her right hand, several of plaintiff’s medical providers diagnosed reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. Finally, plaintiff alleged that as a result of the fall, she had been unable to work and was unable to return.

In July, 2020, Rob filed defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the basis that the alleged defect was trivial and therefore the defendant had no obligation to repair. The Trivial Defect Doctrine establishes that an individual is not liable for walkway defects that would not ordinarily cause injury when used with normal care. Rob argued the alleged defect would not cause injury when used with ordinary care. In opposition, the plaintiff submitted significant evidence that the defect was not trivial including testimony from witnesses who described the parking lot as “crumbling” and “falling apart.”

In its tentative ruling the court initially denied defendant’s motion. In the initial ruling the court relied heavily upon the factual allegations made by the plaintiff in opposition, detailing significant agreement with the plaintiff’s presentation of evidence. While overcoming a tentative ruling which relies primarily upon facts is typically difficult, Rob requested oral argument. At the hearing Rob focused on the specific defect being alleged by the plaintiff as having caused her fall, making sure the application of the Trivial Defect Doctrine was correct. While it is rare for a party to be successful in having the court change it’s initial ruling, the court in fact reversed the tentative ruling, agreed with Rob and granted the motion, ordering judgment for the defendants. As a result of the judgment, the client was able to regain some of it’s litigation costs.

Rob and John have been with the firm for over a decade. Both specialize in cases alleging complex liability and damages. John can be reached at (916) 540 – 7631 and Rob at (916) 666 – 7776.

Bennett Obtains Dismissal in Truckee Snow Fall Case

Recently, partner Rob Bennett was successful in obtaining summary judgment in a Nevada County case. Rob represented a local homeowner in Truckee, California, who hired two men to remove snow off his second story roof in February, 2017. The men represented themselves out to be general contractors and had performed several jobs for Rob’s client previously. In the bid to secure the work, Rob’s client showed the contractors the location on his roof to remove the snow. In completing the work, the defendant had no input into how the job was completed. While removing the snow, a large piece shed off the roof, striking one of the plaintiffs and pushing him off to the ground two stories below. The second plaintiff was also struck and fell against the railing of the second floor balcony. As a result of the fall, the plaintiffs sustained serious injuries including one who suffered a compression fracture to his lumbar spine.

The contractors sued Rob’s client, alleging he failed to take proper precautions to protect the workers. Plaintiffs further alleged the roof was a dangerous condition. In discovery Rob secured significant factual admissions including agreement that both men were independent contractors as well as awareness by both of the dangers inherent in the work being performed. Rob then filed for summary judgment on behalf of his client asserting the plaintiff’s independent contractor status shielded his client from liability. Further, he argued there were no facts to confirm defendant contributed to cause the accident or failed to act, negating duty. Following briefing by the parties and oral argument, the court agreed, granting summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit.

Prior to the litigation, the plaintiffs demanded $1,000,000 to resolve the case. By securing summary judgment Rob was able to not only vindicate his client’s conduct but he was also able to avoid the expensive work of defense at trial.

Rob has been with the firm for over 11 years and can be reached via phone at (916) 666 – 7776 or email at rfb@powersmiller.com.

Turville Secures Dismissal

Associate Taylor Turville recently secured a dismissal for her clients in a lawsuit pending in Yolo County for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of Civil Rights. In the case, plaintiff alleged that Ms. Turville’s clients reported violations of city abatement laws on Plaintiff’s property and in doing so, violated the Plaintiff’s civil rights.  Plaintiff alleged the reporting defamed him and caused intentional infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiff’s Complaint sought compensatory damages totaling $4.3 million.

Ms. Turville filed a special motion to strike to Plaintiff’s Complaint, otherwise known as an anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that her clients’ conduct of reporting Plaintiff’s many city abatement and code violations were protected activities and a matter of public interest as defined in the California anti-SLAPP statue. Plaintiff attempted to introduce new evidence in his opposition brief that he felt bolstered his claim and attempted to argue that Plaintiff’s activity was not protected or a matter of public interest. In Ms. Turville’s reply, she objected to all the exhibits Plaintiff introduced in his opposition on the grounds of admissibility and hearsay as well as reiterated that her clients’ activity was indeed protected activity and a matter of public interest.

At oral argument, Plaintiff argued that his evidence should be admitted, and that the anti-SLAPP statute did not apply to his causes of action as they were a mix of federal and state causes of action. Ms. Turville argued her objections were proper and, under case law, federal civil rights claims that are brought in California state courts are subject to anti-SLAPP motions.

Ms. Turville’s objections to the Plaintiff’s evidence produced in his opposition were sustained. Further, her special motion to strike was granted as the judge ruled that the defense had shown Plaintiff’s complaint arose out of protected activity and Plaintiff failed to show a probability of prevailing on the merits. The court also ruled plaintiff’s federal causes of action were also subject to the special motion to strike.  As a result, the plaintiff’s Complaint was dismissed.  

Based on the successful ruling, the defendants’ attorney’s fees and costs in the amount of $3,207.50 were also awarded.  Congratulations to Taylor and her clients.

Schaefers Successful in Dismissing Wrongful Death Case

Photo of James Schaefers

This Stanislaus Superior Court matter arose following a motor vehicle collision that resulted in the death of both drivers, and significant injuries to a passenger.   In this case, James represented the brother and sister-in-law of the deceased defendant who was killed in the accident. During the collision, a husband and wife were driving home when the deceased defendant, coming from the opposite direction of travel, crossed over the center divide resulting in a head on collision.  In the subsequent wrongful death action the plaintiffs’ contended that the deceased defendant intentionally crossed the center divide based upon communications obtained via her cell phone. Plaintiffs further alleged that a special relationship existed between the deceased defendant and James’ clients – her family – that imposed a legal duty that required them to prevent the deceased defendant from driving or causing harm.   

After completing significant discovery, James Schaefers filed a motion for summary judgment on behalf of his clients. In the motion James asserted a special relationship did not exist between the family and the decedent defendant sufficient to support that the family had a legal duty.  After opposition and oral arguments by the parties, the Court agreed that the plaintiffs could not establish that there was a special relationship, imposing a duty of the family of the deceased defense to stop her from causing any harm.

As a result of the motion, James’ clients were dismissed from the case and were able to recover their costs of defense to date. This saved his clients from significant exposure, while also personally vindicating their conduct.

Marlink and Sciacca Prevail On Motion For Summary Judgment In Dog Bite Case

This Fresno Superior Court case stemmed from injuries alleged by the plaintiff following a dog bite. Plaintiff pled causes of action for both strict liability under both statute and common law as well as general negligence.

This Fresno Superior Court case stemmed from injuries alleged by the plaintiff following a dog bite. Plaintiff pled causes of action for both strict liability under both statute and common law as well as general negligence.

The dog at issue was originally purchased by

the client’s daughter years before the incident. However, due to circumstances beyond the daughter’s control, the dog ended up residing at the client’s home for approximately 9-12 months in the time leading up to the dog bite incident. It was only a day or two before the dog bite incident that the dog was returned to the daughter’s home where the dog bite occurred. Further, after the incident occurred the dog was again returned to the client’s home for a number of weeks.

Plaintiff’s counsel contended throughout the litigation that the defendant should be considered the owner of the dog at issue. Specifically, it was contended that residing with the client for months was sufficient to support ownership and that the few day departure from the defendant’s home was insufficient to relieve the defendant from this role as owner under the law. Prior to the filing of the motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff’s counsel served a C.C.P. § 998 offer for $49,999.00.  In response the defendant served an offer of dismissal for a waiver of costs after making the position regarding the lack of liability clear and through the development of discovery.

When the offer to resolve for a waiver of costs was not accepted, Katherine Marlink filed a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the client alleging that the residency in the home alone was insufficient to declare the client an owner as a matter of law as it applied to dog bite cases. Relying on testimony from the client’s daughter that she always considered herself an owner and that the client also lacked other incidences of ownership as set forth in case law, Marlink set forth a compelling argument that the defendant was not an owner or even at keeper of the dog at the time the incident occurred.

After opposition and oral argument by the parties, the Court agreed that Plaintiff could not establish that the defendant was an owner or a keeper of the dog. Marlink’s motion for summary judgment was granted and a final judgment in the matter entered in favor of the defendant including the ability to recover some of the costs incurred during the course of the litigation.

Sciacca Prevails at Trial; Significantly Reduces Exposure for Client

Partner John Sciacca recently prevailed at trial in a Shasta Superior Court case against one of the most respected plaintiff’s law firms in Redding, California. The lawsuit arose following a car versus motorcycle accident in Redding in July, 2015. In the accident, John’s client made a left hand turn in front of the plaintiff motorcyclist on Churn Creek Road causing the collision. As a result, the plaintiff sustained a compound fracture to his right leg along with a significant injury to his leg tissue.

Initially plaintiff was hospitalized for three weeks for both surgical repair of the fracture and wound care. The surgical repair included implantation of surgical instrumentation in the right leg. The wound care consisted of a long inpatient stay at a wound care facility in San Francisco with major skin grafting. Further, there was concern during the treatment for the plaintiff that he would require below knee right lower extremity amputation. Plaintiff alleged damages were in excess of $500,000.

During the litigation, John discovered there was an issue as to whether or not the plaintiff had motorcycle liability insurance as required by California law. As a result, John Sciacca had to take extensive and detailed depositions of the plaintiff’s insurance representatives.

The matter went to trial in April of 2019. Prior to trial plaintiff made a demand for the insurance limits $1,250,000. Ultimately, the trial judge found that the plaintiff did not have insurance at the time of the accident, as required by California law. As a result, plaintiff’s recovery was limited to his economic damages only, which was an agreed to amount of $125,000.

Congratulations to John and his clients.

John Sciacca is a partner at Powers Miller and has been with the firm for
over nine years. John has significant experience defending and trying
cases involving traumatic injuries and wrongful death. John Sciacca
also routinely handles cases that involve exposures in excess of the
insurance limits and those related to complex legal issues.

Third District Court of Appeal Affirms Jim’s 2015 Judgment Against Plaintiff For $136,062 (Ziert v. Young’s Lockford Payless Market, Inc.)

James Miller headshot On January 30, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a jury trial verdict and the award of expert fees in Jim Miller’s client’s favor in an unpublished decision. Jim’s client was also awarded the costs of appeal.

The appeal arises from a ten day jury trial that was completed in May, 2015. Jim Miller was also the trial attorney for the defendant. For a summary of the trial, please review the May 2015 post of Ziert v. Young’s Lockeford Payless Market, Inc.

At that time of the trial, the jury awarded plaintiff Ziert his co-payments only and did not award any other medical expenses, wage loss or general damages. The jury then found the plaintiff 75 percent comparatively at fault which resulted in a verdict of $720 in favor plaintiff and against Jim’s client. The verdict as to intervener was $0 and therefore, a judgment in favor of Jim’s client against intervener was entered.

Early in the litigation, Jim had served 998 Offers on both the plaintiff and intervener and those offers were in excess of the jury verdicts. Accordingly, the trial judge awarded Jim’s client its expert fees. The total judgment awarded to Jim’s client against the plaintiff and intervener joint and severally was $136,062.70.

Initially, both the plaintiff and intervener filed appeals arguing that there were facts insufficient to support the jury’s verdicts and that the trial court should not have awarded costs due to an improper 998 Offer. While the appeal was pending, the intervener and Jim’s client reached a confidential settlement. Therefore, the intervener dismissed it’s appeal. However, plaintiff’s appeal went forward.

The Court of Appeal issued its unpublished decision first noting that plaintiff’s attorney failed to present a proper record on appeal to allow it to address the issues argued in plaintiff’s appeal. The Court of Appeal then delved further noting that the record on appeal which was presented by plaintiff was adequate to show that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury verdict.

As for the awarding of costs, the Court of Appeal again affirmed the trial Court’s decision. The 998 that was offered to plaintiff was by Young’s Market and two other defendants, Louis and Harry Young. Louis and Harry had not yet been dismissed from the lawsuit at the time of the offer but ultimately were before the matter went to trial. Additionally, the 998 Offer also included the phrase that acceptance of the offer will also constitute satisfaction and settlement of all existing liens.

Plaintiff argued that the 998 was invalid because the offer included the individual defendants, Louis and Harry. The Court of Appeal ruled that it can be determined that the 998 Offer exceeds the judgment because there is no pending or anticipated action that might yield a judgment against the individual defendants whom plaintiff dismissed from the lawsuit. The Court of Appeal went on to offer that although the dismissal was without prejudice, there was no reason to anticipate renewed litigation, because the individuals and their market were sued as agents of each other, clearly united in interest and sued on a theory of joint and several liability.

Plaintiff’s second reason for invalidity of the settlement offer is that the offer required that all liens existing in May 2012 be satisfied from the offer. Plaintiff argued “there is no way to know what if any potential liens may arise, so the offer is ambiguous and not capable of being valued. The lien from the VA was itself in excess of $400,000 and impossible to satisfy from the offered amount.”

However, the Court of Appeal found that the offer was not ambiguous; it said nothing about “potential liens” but rather specified “existing liens.” Plaintiff failed to show the $400,000 lien was attributable to the subject accident. The Court further found that an offer designating that plaintiff is responsible for all medical liens is valid and comports with Section 998 is nothing more than a reminder of the plaintiff’s obligation to pay the medical liens. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment and the awarding section 998 costs.

The Plaintiff’s attorney filed a petition for rehearing which was denied.

While the instant appeal was unpublished, Jim has three published appellate decisions. He is also a member of ABOTA which requires, among other requirements, at least 10 jury trials to verdict for membership.

Rob Successful in Binding Arbitration

Headshot of Robert F Bennett On December 13, 2018, associate Rob Bennett secured a favorable arbitration award following an arbitration completed on December 11. Rob represented a young college student from Yuba City, sued in Sutter County following an accident in February, 2016. The accident occurred on East Hillcrest Avenue and Windsor Drive in Yuba City. The intersection is offset and the roads do not meet in square 90 degree angles. Prior to the accident, Rob’s client was traveling down Hillcrest whereas the plaintiff was traveling on Windsor. The plaintiff, a local nurse, pulled out from a stop on Windsor just as Rob’s client was entering in the intersection, causing a t-bone type collision.

As a result of the accident, the young plaintiff sustained a fractured pelvis and soft tissue injuries to her neck and back. She was transported to the hospital where the fracture was diagnosed but non-operable. After being off work for three months and completing physical therapy plaintiff’s fracture healed; although she asserted she continued to experience ongoing pain in her pelvis and back. Plaintiff was then referred to Ardavan Aslie, M.D., a Sacramento spine surgeon who recommended two surgical procedures including one on her lumbar spine and on the plaintiff’s coccyx.

At the arbitration, Rob presented a significant defense on liability with the testimony of his engineer. He successfully admitted evidence on the liability associated with the city’s design of the intersection and the comparative fault of the plaintiff’s driving. The plaintiff presented the testimony of her engineer to maintain the liability against Rob’s client but plaintiff’s primary focus was on her injuries and damages. Dr. Aslie testified in person at the hearing where Rob gained significant admissions as to the legitimacy of his proposed future medical care on cross-exam. Plaintiff alleged her past and future economic damages totaled $243,000.  Plaintiff requested a total award of $416,000.

Prior to the hearing, defendant served a C.C.P. § 998 offer to resolve for $20,001. The arbitrator awarded $26,658. While Rob just barely missed beating his prior offer, his clients were pleased with the result.

Sciacca Secures Defense Verdict

John Sciacca recently defended a client in a lawsuit for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It was alleged by the plaintiff that Mr. Sciacca’s client contacted the plaintiff’s employer to advise the plaintiff’s employer that the plaintiff was a convicted felon and had recently put sugar in the gas tank of a Jeep owned by Mr. Sciacca’s client. Within a few weeks, plaintiff was let go from his employment.

It was learned during the trial that plaintiff was, in fact, a temporary employee at his place of employment. He was on a contract, and his employer testified that he was released from employment because his contract had ended. His employer testified that the telephone call from Mr. Sciacca’s client had nothing to do with the plaintiff being let go from his place of employment.

Furthermore, Mr. Sciacca submitted evidence that although the plaintiff was not a convicted felon, the plaintiff had, in fact, been convicted of several misdemeanors, including assault and battery, and had been charged with felony child abuse. Additionally, Mr. Sciacca elicited testimony from one of his client’s roommates who was a retired investigator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who happened to be living at Mr. Sciacca’s client’s home when the plaintiff allegedly put sugar in Mr. Sciacca’s client’s Jeep. The plaintiff was also living at the home at this time. The retired prison investigator testified that he believed the plaintiff was the one that put sugar in Mr. Sciacca’s client’s gas tank. This was based upon his deductive reasoning and years of experience as an investigator in law enforcement.

In closing arguments, Mr. Sciacca argued to the jury that the alleged statements made by his client to the plaintiff’s employer were, in fact, substantially true. Furthermore, Mr. Sciacca highlighted that there was no evidence that the plaintiff had, in fact, suffered severe emotional distress. There was no evidence offered by the plaintiff that he had, in fact, sought treatment for his severe emotional distress with respect to the intentional infliction of emotional distress cause of action.

After a three day jury trial, the jury returned a defense verdict on both causes of action for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress on behalf of Mr. Sciacca’s client. Mr. Sciacca’s client was awarded costs as a result of the defense verdict.

Mr. Sciacca has handled a number of defamation cases in his career. He has only settled one defamation case, having all of the others dismissed by way of either Anti-SLAPP motions or defense verdict. As a result of Mr. Sciacca’s defense of defamation actions, Mr. Sciacca’s client’s have been awarded over $25,000 in attorney’s fees and costs to date.

Firm Associate Successful in Motion for Summary Judgment

In this matter, the Firm represented clients who were the first owners of a custom-built house in Calaveras County. Plaintiffs, the subsequent owners of the property, discovered multiple alleged defects in the house, many of which were attributed to a shifting foundation.

The plaintiffs sued the contractor who originally constructed the house. That contractor then filed a cross-complaint against the Firm’s clients, alleging that they made modifications during their ownership of the house which actually caused all of the plaintiff’s complaints.

The Firm filed a motion for summary judgment against the cross-complaint on the grounds that his clients would not be liable for any of the plaintiff’s damages even if they had undertaken such modifications. In California, a contractor who is part of the original construction and/or design of a structure is statutorily liable for any damages caused by defects in that construction or design within ten years. However, a mere homeowner is not so liable. The builder opposed the Firm’s motion by arguing that, regardless of the statutory law, the clients should be jointly and severally liable to the plaintiffs for any damages that they caused or contributed to.

The Court agreed with the Firm’s argument and reasoning, and issued its ruling, granting the motion and holding that absent any duty or statutory liability, the Firm’s clients could not be jointly and severally liable to the plaintiffs for any damages caused by improvements they made to the property. Absent joint and several liability, there was no basis for the builders requests for indemnity, apportionment, or declaratory relief. The Court furthermore held that the cross-complainant’s independent cause of action against the Firm’s clients could not be maintained under the “tort of another” theory.

Through the successful motion the Firm was able to secure judgment for his clients and was awarded costs.