TYRINE WILSON, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. KOOMIE SON et al., Defendants and Appellants.
NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS
A jury awarded approximately $1.5 million to plaintiff Tyrine Wilson in her lawsuit against defendants Koomie Son, Pyo Mal Soon, Eden Retirement Home, Inc., and Royal Park Retirement Home, Inc. The jury found defendants liable for the wrongful death and elder abuse of plaintiff's husband, Gilbert Wilson, who suffered from Alzheimer's dementia, wandered away from defendants' residential care facility several days after arriving there, and was fatally struck by a vehicle. Defendants contend as follows: (1) plaintiff had no standing to sue for the elder abuse of her husband; (2) plaintiff was not entitled to recover for wrongful death because she did not join other heirs in her litigation; (3) plaintiff purportedly did not prove defendants caused Mr. Wilson's death.
We find that because plaintiff was the widow of Mr. Wilson, who died intestate and with no children, plaintiff was expressly authorized by statute to sue for both elder abuse and wrongful death. Also, plaintiff established causation by evidence of defendants' violation of safety regulations applicable to residential care facilities for the elderly, and by evidence that those violations contributed to Mr. Wilson's wandering away from the facility and being fatally struck by a vehicle. We thus affirm the judgment.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL SUMMARY
In October of 1985, plaintiff married Mr. Wilson. In 2003, plaintiff started noticing bizarre changes in her husband's behavior, such as sleeping in the garage, urinating on himself or urinating by a light pole outside the house, wandering off, and forgetting where he lived. In March of 2005, Dr. Wayne Chen, a physician specializing in the treatment of the elderly, saw Mr. Wilson, who was then 86 years old, and confirmed that he suffered from Alzheimer's dementia to a moderate degree.
Mentally, Mr. Wilson had problems with short-term memory and attention. Physically, Mr. Wilson was incontinent and had problems with walking and balance. By December of 2005, the last time Dr. Chen saw Mr. Wilson alive, “his cognition had worsened; he became more forgetful, and [his] thinking became more disorganized, and he exhibited some wandering behavior.”
Soon thereafter, plaintiff decided to place Mr. Wilson in a residential care facility because she could no longer take care of him by herself. Dr. Chen had completed a form to assist plaintiff in placing her husband in a facility, and the form indicated that he suffered from Alzheimer's dementia. Plaintiff inspected several residential care facilities, including Eden Retirement Home, Inc. (Eden), on South Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. When plaintiff visited Eden, defendant Koomie Son gave her a tour of the premises. Plaintiff repeatedly informed Ms. Son that her husband “was a wanderer and [that] he had Alzheimer's.” Ms. Son replied, “Don't worry. They will take care of him there.”
Confident Eden would properly care for Mr. Wilson, plaintiff took her husband there on December 31, 2005. Plaintiff again emphasized that he had Alzheimer's disease and “kept stressing to take care of him and don't let him wander.” Ms. Son again reassured plaintiff, “Don't worry, Ms. Wilson. We will.”
Two days later, when Lisa Lee, a staff member at Eden, arrived at work, she found in a cabinet a handwritten note from Ms. Son that stated Mr. Wilson “cries a lot,” advised her to “tell him his wife will come over to see him” to get him to stop crying, and requested that she “make him smile and be nice to him and make him happy.” There were no other documents at Eden regarding Mr. Wilson, even though Ms. Lee acknowledged it was “usually [Eden's] system to have some kind of documents when there's any new resident there.”
At some point during the day, Mr. Wilson went outside with another resident to smoke and then came back inside and went to his room. When Ms. Lee later checked his room, at approximately 3:30 to 4:00 p.m., as she was getting ready to leave for the day, she discovered that Mr. Wilson was missing. Ms. Lee told her coworkers and Ms. Son that Mr. Wilson was missing, searched the neighborhood but was unable to find him, and then recommended calling the police.
Ms. Son did not call the police. At approximately 4:45 p.m., she telephoned plaintiff and told her that Mr. Wilson was missing. Plaintiff rushed over to Eden with some relatives. By the time they arrived, Ms. Son had left the facility. Because the police had not yet been called, one of plaintiff's relatives called them, and they arrived at Eden at approximately 6:00 p.m. The police and some of plaintiff's relatives searched the neighborhood for Mr. Wilson, but they did not find him. The next day, plaintiff and her family put up posters in the neighborhood around plaintiff's house.
On January 3, 2006, at approximately 5:00 a.m., the police were called to a location on San Fernando Road in Los Angeles and found a person, subsequently discovered to be Mr. Wilson, dead and lying face-down in a puddle near the edge of the road. An ensuing police investigation revealed that Mr. Wilson's death was caused by multiple blunt traumas from a collision with a tractor trailer.
In May of 2006, plaintiff filed the present lawsuit, in her individual capacity and as the successor in interest to her husband's estate. A jury returned verdicts in favor of plaintiff on her causes of action for wrongful death and elder abuse, with a finding that defendants acted with recklessness, malice, oppression or fraud. The jury awarded plaintiff $300,000 for wrongful death and $1,180,000 for elder abuse. In September of 2008, judgment was entered against defendants for $1,480,000 in damages, plus $7,861 in costs and $296,856 in attorney fees, for a total judgment of $1,784,717, plus interest from the date of entry of judgment.
Defendants moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) and for a new trial. Defendants urged in those motions, in part, that plaintiff did not have standing and had committed extrinsic fraud. According to defendants, plaintiff was not a proper personal representative or successor in interest to Mr. Wilson's claim of elder abuse, because plaintiff's affidavit asserting her successor in interest status, under Code of Civil Procedure section 377.11,1 omitted reference to other potential beneficiaries (i.e., Mr. Wilson's siblings, nieces, and nephews) who should also have filed an affidavit. Defendants also argued that a wrongful death action is indivisible, and that plaintiff erred in failing to join as necessary parties in the action all the omitted heirs of Mr. Wilson. In support of their motions for JNOV and for a new trial, defendants included as exhibits excerpts of plaintiff's deposition testimony, plaintiff's affidavit of successor in interest statement (filed pursuant to § 377.32), and a declaration by Arthur Gibson (a brother of Mr. Wilson) indicating that several of Mr. Wilson's siblings and other relatives are still alive.
The trial court denied defendants' motions for JNOV and for a new trial. Defendants appeal from the order denying the motion for JNOV and from the underlying judgment.
I. Standing and joinder issues.
A. Standard of review.
Defendants do not specifically couch their standing and joinder contentions in the context of the denial of their motion for JNOV. However, the bulk of the evidence cited by defendants as support for their standing and joinder contentions (e.g., plaintiff's deposition testimony, plaintiff's declaration of successor in interest, and a declaration by the Mr. Wilson's brother [Arthur Gibson] ) were exhibits in support of the motion for JNOV, not evidence adduced at trial.2
Ordinarily, when reviewing a JNOV issue, an appellate court will use the same standard the trial court uses in ruling on the motion and will determine whether it appears from the record, viewed most favorably to the prevailing party, that any substantial evidence supports the verdict. (Wright v. City of Los Angeles (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 318, 343.) In general, “ ‘[t]he purpose of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict is not to afford a review of the jury's deliberation but to prevent a miscarriage of justice in those cases where the verdict rendered is without foundation.’ ” (Sukoff v. Lemkin (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 740, 743.)
Here, however, the issues of standing and joinder deal solely with the interpretation and application of statutory language to the undisputed facts. Review of such issues is de novo. (See Trujillo v. North County Transit Dist. (1998) 63 Cal.App.4th 280, 284.) We thus treat defendants' contentions as to standing and joinder not as substantial evidence matters, but rather as questions of law reviewed de novo.
B. Plaintiff, Mr. Wilson's wife, has standing to prosecute the elder abuse cause of action and is a real party in interest.
Plaintiff signed a declaration asserting her status as a successor in interest, as defined in section 377.11, which stated that she was Mr. Wilson's widow, and that the Mr. Wilson had no children and was intestate. According to defendants, plaintiff's declaration was false, and plaintiff was not a successor in interest because she knew but omitted from the declaration the fact that Mr. Wilson had surviving siblings, nieces, and nephews who are beneficiaries of his estate under the California laws of intestate succession. Defendants assert that plaintiff committed fraud, breached her fiduciary duty, and committed willful misconduct when she intentionally or recklessly omitted them as parties to the instant lawsuit and submitted a deliberately false declaration regarding her status as Mr. Wilson's successor in interest.
The operative statutory provision governing standing in a case alleging a cause of action for elder abuse is Welfare and Institutions Code section 15657.3, subdivision (d). That statutory provision “delineates who has standing to bring an elder abuse lawsuit after the death of an elder or dependent adult.” (Estate of Lowrie (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 220, 227.) At the time both when Mr. Wilson died (January 3, 2006) and when plaintiff commenced this lawsuit (May 26, 2006), the statute provided as follows: “Upon petition, after the death of the elder or dependent adult, the right to maintain an action shall be transferred to the personal representative of the decedent, or if none, to the person or persons entitled to succeed to the decedent's estate.” (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 15657.3, subd. (d).) 3
Although plaintiff apparently did not petition for the right to be the personal representative of Mr. Wilson, plaintiff satisfied the alternative qualification and had standing to prosecute the elder abuse claim because she was “entitled to succeed to the decedent's estate.” (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 15657.3, subd. (d).) When a married person dies intestate, the surviving spouse succeeds to the decedent's share of the community property. (Prob.Code, § 6401, subd. (a); see also Ross, Cal. Practice Guide: Probate (The Rutter Group 2009) ¶ 7:24 [“if decedent died intestate, the community and quasi-community property passes outright to the surviving spouse”].)
Damages for personal injuries to a spouse are community property if, as here, the claim arose during marriage. (Fam.Code, § 780.) It is well settled that “the cause of action for personal injuries suffered by either spouse during marriage, to whatever extent such cause of action may constitute property [citation], as well as any recovery therefor, constitutes community property-at least in the absence of agreement otherwise between the spouses.” (Zaragosa v. Craven (1949) 33 Cal.2d 315, 320-321.)
In the present case, the elder abuse claim sought recovery for the personal injuries suffered by Mr. Wilson when he was killed, which occurred while he was married to plaintiff. Accordingly, since Mr. Wilson died intestate, plaintiff succeeded to the cause of action and had the right to maintain it at the time she commenced this lawsuit.
Moreover, because the elder abuse cause of action was community property, Mr. Wilson's surviving siblings had no inheritable interest in it under the laws of intestate succession. They stood only to inherit the half of Mr. Wilson's separate property that did not pass to plaintiff. (Prob.Code, §§ 6401, subd. (c)(2)(B), 6402, subd. (c).) Defendants' repeated assertion, that plaintiff is purportedly not the successor in interest because Mr. Wilson had surviving siblings, nieces and nephews who are beneficiaries of his estate, is thus unavailing.
Because those other relatives were not beneficiaries of Mr. Wilson's community property interest in the elder abuse cause of action, they were not required to provide declarations under section 377.32, subdivision (b). Plaintiff thus did not commit extrinsic fraud by not revealing to the court the identities of those persons who were irrelevant to her litigation.
As appropriate to satisfy the requirement of standing, plaintiff fully complied with section 377.32 by filing a declaration stating she is Mr. Wilson's widow and successor in interest, and by attaching a certified copy of Mr. Wilson's death certificate. Plaintiff thus has standing under the prior 1997 version of the defining statute by virtue of her status as a person “entitled to succeed to the decedent's estate.” (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 15657.3, subd. (d).)
Plaintiff would also qualify for standing on all three grounds set forth in the previously noted (fn.3, ante ) amended version of the statute. Plaintiff would be deemed: (1) an intestate heir whose interest is affected by the action, because she inherited her late husband's community property share of the elder abuse claim; (2) a successor in interest under section 377.11, because she inherited his interest in the elder abuse cause of action; and (3) an “interested person” within the meaning of the Probate Code, section 48, subdivision (a)(1), which defines an “interested person” as including a “spouse.” (See Welf. & Inst.Code, § 15657.3, subd. (d), as currently amended.) It is unnecessary to address defendants' arguments concerning the nonretroactivity of the amended statute, because plaintiff has standing under either the prior 1997 version of the statute or under the current amended version. (Cf. Pittelman v. Pearce (1992) 6 Cal.App.4th 1436, 1443.)
Finally, as a matter of statutory construction, any doubt as to plaintiff's standing must be resolved in her favor. The Elder Abuse Act (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 15600 et seq.) is designed to encourage private enforcement through civil actions against the abuse and neglect of the elderly. (See, e.g., Covenant Care, Inc. v. Superior Court (2004) 32 Cal.4th 771, 779; Quiroz v. Seventh Ave. Center (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1256, 1283 [“the procedural requirement of standing is broadly construed under the Act”].) When the Legislature enacted section 15657.3, it “specified that the Elder Abuse Act was intended to ‘enable interested persons to engage attorneys to take up the cause of abused elderly persons and dependent adults.’ [Citation.] This statement of legislative intent suggests the Legislature intended a broad definition of standing in the context of elder abuse cases.” (Estate of Lowrie, supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 227.)
Consistent with the fundamental principle of statutory construction which focuses on the intent of the Legislature (see Page v. Superior Court (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 1206, 1211), “[s]tanding, for the purposes of the Elder Abuse Act, must be analyzed in a manner that induces interested persons to report elder abuse and to file lawsuits against elder abuse and neglect.” (In re Estate of Lowrie, supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 230.) Here, plaintiff-the wife of Mr. Wilson, a man who died intestate and without children-had standing under the Elder Abuse Act. Plaintiff is also directly affected by the proceedings and thus obviously a real party in interest. (See Sonoma County Nuclear Free Zone '86 v. Superior Court (1987) 189 Cal.App.3d 167, 173.)
C. Plaintiff was entitled to recover for the wrongful death of her husband.
Defendants also contend that plaintiff is not entitled to any recovery for her husband's wrongful death because she did not join other heirs, even though she knew Mr. Wilson had siblings, nieces, and nephews. This assertion is without merit.
The right to prosecute a wrongful death action is limited to those persons identified by statute (Fuentes v. Tucker (1947) 31 Cal.2d 1, 9-10), and the Legislature has specifically authorized a “surviving spouse” to sue. (§ 377.60, subd. (a).) It is of no consequence to plaintiff's right to sue as a surviving spouse that Mr. Wilson's siblings, nieces, and nephews also might have been entitled to sue.
Although all the heirs generally should be joined in one wrongful death action to avoid multiplicity of actions and to allow for the award of one lump-sum verdict (see Cross v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. (1964) 60 Cal.2d 690, 694; San Diego Gas & Electric Co. v. Superior Court (2007) 146 Cal.App.4th 1545, 1551), it is not required. The trial court “has jurisdiction to try a wrongful death action even absent joinder of one or more heirs of the decedent” (Ruttenberg v. Ruttenberg (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 801, 808), and the “absence of an heir does not preclude the court from granting complete relief.” (San Diego Gas & Elec. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 146 Cal.App.4th at p. 1551.)
Accordingly, plaintiff's nonjoinder of other heirs, whether intentional or not, does not require reversal of the judgment. In fact, “if defendant had knowledge of the omitted heir, but did not attempt to abate the action or join the heir, the defendant waives the right to a single wrongful death action and may be subjected to a second wrongful death action by the omitted heir, even after settlement of the original action.” (Smith v. Premier Alliance Ins. Co. (1995) 41 Cal.App.4th 691, 697.)
II. Substantial evidence of causation.
A. Standard of review.
Defendants' contention as to lack of causation hinges on the trial evidence and involves the substantial evidence standard of review. According to defendants, there was no competent evidence to establish causation between the defendants' actions and Mr. Wilson's death.
“When considering a claim of insufficient evidence on appeal, we do not reweigh the evidence, but rather determine whether, after resolving all conflicts favorably to the prevailing party, and according the prevailing party the benefit of all reasonable inferences, there is substantial evidence to support the judgment.” (Scott v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (1995) 11 Cal.4th 454, 465.) In reviewing the evidence on appeal, all conflicts must be resolved in favor of the judgment, and all legitimate and reasonable inferences indulged in to uphold the judgment if possible. When a judgment is attacked as being unsupported, the power of the appellate court begins and ends with a determination as to whether there is any substantial evidence, contradicted or uncontradicted, which will support the judgment. When two or more inferences can be reasonably deduced from the facts, the reviewing court is without power to substitute its deductions for those of the trier of fact. (Western States Petroleum Assn. v. Superior Court (1995) 9 Cal.4th 559, 571; Crawford v. Southern Pacific Co. (1935) 3 Cal.2d 427, 429.)
B. The evidence adduced at trial revealed substantial evidence of causation.
Contrary to defendants' contention, substantial evidence established the requisite element of causation between defendants' actions and Mr. Wilson's death.
“The standard is high for finding as a matter of law that the material facts show a lack of causality” (Constance B. v. State of California (1986) 178 Cal.App.3d 200, 207), and a court will treat causation as a question of law only to the extent a reasonable person would not challenge the lack of causation. As in the present case, causation is generally a question of fact for the jury to decide. (Ortega v. Kmart Corp. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 1200, 1205.)
To recover damages for elder abuse or wrongful death, plaintiff had to prove, among other elements, that defendants' wrongful act or neglect caused or resulted in Mr. Wilson's death. (Perlin v. Fountain View Management, Inc. (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 657, 664; Quiroz v. Seventh Ave. Center, supra, 140 Cal.App.4th at p. 1263.) However, plaintiff did not have to prove that defendants' conduct was the sole proximate cause of death; defendants could be liable even if their conduct operated in combination with other causes and was a proximate cause. (American Motorcycle Assn. v. Superior Court (1978) 20 Cal.3d 578, 586; Troyk v. Farmers Group, Inc. (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 1305, 1349, fn. 33.) Thus, even though a vehicle fatally struck Mr. Wilson, which was undoubtedly the immediate cause of his death, it was only one cause of his death. Defendants could be found liable if plaintiff could prove that defendants' own wrongful conduct constituted a “ ‘substantial factor’ ” in bringing about Mr. Wilson's death. (Perlin v. Fountain View Management, Inc., supra, 163 Cal.App.4th at p. 664; Bromme v. Pavitt (1992) 5 Cal.App.4th 1487, 1507.) Plaintiff did establish defendants' wrongful conduct was a substantial factor and, contrary to defendants' assertion, plaintiff need not have established all the details of the vehicle accident to recover damages at trial.
As the trial court correctly instructed the jury, a “substantial factor in causing harm” is “more than a remote or trivial factor”; it is a factor that a reasonable person would consider as contributing to the injury, and it “does not have to be the only cause of harm.” (See CACI No. 430.) Plaintiff's expert witness on the standard of care testified that, contrary to various code requirements governing residential care facilities for the elderly that accept patients with dementia (see Cal.Code Regs., tit. 22, § 87705, subds. (b), (c), (j)), defendants' facility had the following failings: (1) it lacked buzzers or other auditory devices on the doors to alert the staff when someone exits the building; (2) it did not have appropriately trained staff to care for residents with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia; (3) it did not obtain pertinent medical information about Mr. Wilson, properly assess his individual needs, or develop an appropriate plan for him before his admission; and (4) it did not contact the police regarding Mr. Wilson's disappearance, and the facility arguably contacted plaintiff belatedly after Mr. Wilson disappeared.
The various regulatory provisions applicable to residential care facilities for the elderly “were obviously designed to prevent decedent's mental and physical problems from going unnoticed and untreated, so that harm to decedent could be avoided.” (Klein v. Bia Hotel Corp. (1996) 41 Cal.App.4th 1133, 1140.) The facility “had duties under the regulations which, if followed, may have prevented decedent's death. Decedent was a member of the class of person designed to be protected by the regulations. Clearly, the regulations were designed to protect residents of residential care facilities for the elderly from, among other things, harm such as decedent experienced. Clearly plaintiff's loss resulted ‘from an occurrence of the nature which the [regulations were] designed to prevent.’ (Evid.Code, § 669.)” (Klein, at p. 1141.)
Likewise, in the present case, if defendants had complied with the safety regulations, a resident like Mr. Wilson with Alzheimer's disease and a known history of wandering, might not have left the facility unsupervised, wandered the streets of Los Angeles at night, and been fatally struck by a vehicle. As plaintiff's expert witness on the standard of care testified, “someone with moderate dementia who can't tell another person where he's going and where he came from is [at] a huge risk for injury or foul play.”
Accordingly, defendants breached their duty of care to Mr. Wilson by failing to comply with applicable regulations governing residential care facilities for the elderly (see Klein v. Bia Hotel Corp., supra, 41 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1140-1141), and a reasonable person could well conclude that those violations were part of a continuous series of events culminating in Mr. Wilson's fatal accident, and thus constituting a substantial factor in bringing about his death. (See Troyk v. Farmers Group, Inc., supra, 171 Cal.App.4th at p. 1349, fn. 33; Mayes v. Bryan (2006) 139 Cal.App.4th 1075, 1093.) The jury's verdict to that effect is supported by substantial evidence and will not be disturbed on appeal.
The judgment is affirmed.
NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS.
FN1. All statutory references are to the Code of Civil Procedure, unless otherwise indicated.. FN1. All statutory references are to the Code of Civil Procedure, unless otherwise indicated.
FN2. We note that one of plaintiff's trial exhibits, the memorial service program for Mr. Wilson, is cited by defendants to show that plaintiff knew that two of Mr. Wilson's siblings were alive, and that plaintiff also was aware that several nieces and nephews existed.. FN2. We note that one of plaintiff's trial exhibits, the memorial service program for Mr. Wilson, is cited by defendants to show that plaintiff knew that two of Mr. Wilson's siblings were alive, and that plaintiff also was aware that several nieces and nephews existed.
FN3. Thereafter, but prior to the date judgment was entered in this case (September 12, 2008), the statute was amended (Stats.2007, ch. 48, § 1, eff.Jan. 1, 2008) and now reads, in pertinent part, as follows: “Subject to paragraph (2) and subdivision (e), after the death of the elder or dependent adult, the right to commence or maintain an action shall pass to the personal representative of the decedent. If there is no personal representative, the right to commence or maintain an action shall pass to any of the following, if the requirements of Section 377.32 of the Code of Civil Procedure are met: [¶] (A) An intestate heir whose interest is affected by the action. [¶] (B) The decedent's successor in interest, as defined in Section 377.11 of the Code of Civil Procedure. [¶] (C) An interested person, as defined in Section 48 of the Probate Code, as limited in this subparagraph. As used in this subparagraph, ‘an interested person’ does not include a creditor or a person who has a claim against the estate and who is not an heir or beneficiary of the decedent's estate.” (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 15657.3, subd. (d)(1).). FN3. Thereafter, but prior to the date judgment was entered in this case (September 12, 2008), the statute was amended (Stats.2007, ch. 48, § 1, eff.Jan. 1, 2008) and now reads, in pertinent part, as follows: “Subject to paragraph (2) and subdivision (e), after the death of the elder or dependent adult, the right to commence or maintain an action shall pass to the personal representative of the decedent. If there is no personal representative, the right to commence or maintain an action shall pass to any of the following, if the requirements of Section 377.32 of the Code of Civil Procedure are met: [¶] (A) An intestate heir whose interest is affected by the action. [¶] (B) The decedent's successor in interest, as defined in Section 377.11 of the Code of Civil Procedure. [¶] (C) An interested person, as defined in Section 48 of the Probate Code, as limited in this subparagraph. As used in this subparagraph, ‘an interested person’ does not include a creditor or a person who has a claim against the estate and who is not an heir or beneficiary of the decedent's estate.” (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 15657.3, subd. (d)(1).)
ASHMANN-GERST, J. CHAVEZ, J.