Supreme Court Reins In Court Of Appeal’s Attempt To Rewrite The Statutory Requirements For Presentation Of A Claim Against The Government

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A woman who allegedly suffered injury while being treated in a county-owned hospital delivered a notice of intent to sue to the risk management department of the hospital instead of the clerk, secretary, auditor or board of the local public entity.  The Supreme Court concluded the court of appeal erred in determining that the woman had substantially complied with the claims presentation requirements of the Government Claims Act.  The Court held that a claim must satisfy the express provisions of Government Code section 915 which require delivery to or receipt by the clerk, secretary, auditor or board.  (DiCampli-Mintz v. County of Santa Clara (--- P.3d ----, 2012 WL 6050500, Cal., December 6, 2012).

Facts

Dr. Bao-Thuong Bui and Dr. Abraham Sklar performed surgery on Hope DiCampli-Mintz (“Patient”) on April 4, 2006, at Valley Medical Center (“VMC”).  The County of Santa Clara (“County”) owns and operates VMC.  While in the recovery room, it was discovered that the Patient’s “left iliac artery” was “completed interrupted” and she had to return to surgery.  Later in 2006, Patient went to VMC’s emergency room because of pain and a physician told her that she needed another procedure because the first surgery had caused damage to her blood vessels.

Counsel for Patient prepared a letter for transmission to Dr. Bui, Dr. Sklar, and VMC notifying them that Patient would file suit against them for damages arising out of the injury she incurred as a result of the surgery.  The letter alleged that the doctors and VMC negligently performed the surgery by interrupting blood flow to Patient’s leg and then failed to repair the problem they created.  On April 3, 2007, counsel for Patient personally delivered copies of the letter to a medical staffing office employee in VMC’s administration building.  The letters were addressed to Dr. Bui, Dr. Sklar, and the Risk Management Department at VMC.  The letters requested that the recipients forward them to their insurance carriers but did not request that the letters be forwarded to the persons designated in Government Code section 915, which governs the manner of delivery of a claim against the government. 

The letter was never mailed or personally served or presented to the County Clerk or the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors.  The Santa Clara Risk Management Department received the letter on April 6, 2007.  Patient’s counsel spoke by telephone with someone at the County Risk Management Department on April 23, 2007, about the letter and the tort claim.  Patient did not receive notice that her claim was presented to the wrong party or that it was untimely. 

Patient filed a complaint on July 2, 2007, which named Dr. Bui, Dr. Sklar, and VMC as defendants.  County filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground Patient “failed to comply with the Government Claims Act because her claim was never presented or received by a statutorily designated recipient as required by section 915.”  Patient asserted she substantially complied with the Act because she delivered the letter of intent to VMC’s risk management department and then the letter was delivered to the County Risk Management Department.  The trial court granted County’s motion for summary judgment.  The court of appeal reversed the trial court’s decision and concluded Patient had substantially complied with the Act.  

Decision

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the trial court.  The Court rejected the court of appeal’s “judicial expansion of the statutory requirements” for delivery of a claim against the government and “affirm[ed] that a claim must satisfy the express delivery provisions of the language of the statute.”

Suits for money damages are governed by provisions of the Government Code that are commonly referred to as the Government Claims Act.  Claims for personal injury against a local public entity must be presented to the entity within six months after the claim accrues.  No suit for damages “may be brought against a public entity on a cause of action for which a claim is required to be presented . . . until a written claim therefore has been presented to the public entity and has been acted upon . . . or has been rejected.”  If a plaintiff does not present a claim for damages to a public entity, he or she is generally barred from filing a lawsuit against the entity. 

Government Code section 915, subdivision (a), mandates “that a claim be presented to a local public entity by ‘delivering it to the clerk, secretary or auditor,’ or by mailing it to one of these officials ‘or to the governing body.’”  Subdivision (e) of section 915 “provides that a misdirected claim ‘shall be deemed to have been presented in compliance’ with section 915 if ‘[i]t is actually received by the clerk, secretary, auditor or board of the local public entity.’”  The Court noted, “Even if the public entity has actual knowledge of facts that might support a claim, the claims statutes still must be satisfied.” 

The question before the Supreme Court was whether presentation of Patient’s “letter of intention to someone other than the statute’s designated recipients or the actual receipt of notice by a proper recipient, satisfies the prefiling claim requirement.”  Patient’s claim was never mailed or delivered to the “clerk, secretary or auditor” in compliance with section 915, subdivision (a).  Also, the “clerk, auditor or board” never actually received Patient’s claim.  The requirements of neither subdivision (a) nor subdivision (e) were ever satisfied.  The Supreme Court rejected the court of appeal’s finding that there was substantial compliance. 

The court of appeal failed to adhere to section 915’s plain language and instead “rewrote the statute to read as the court believed it should provide.”  Compliance with section 915, subdivision (e) requires that one of the designated recipients actually receive the misdirected claim.  If the appropriate public employee or board never receives a claim, the misdirected or undelivered claim fails to comply with section 915.  Because none of the designated recipients ever received Patient’s claim, the court of appeal erred in finding she substantially complied with section 915.

Questions

If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

Jeffrey L. Massey or William T. Chisum | 916.321.4500

 

Topics:  Government Claims, Service of Process

Published In: Administrative Agency Updates, Civil Procedure Updates, Personal Injury Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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