Elder Abuse: Religious Corporations

By on May 29, 2008 - Comments off

Little Company of Mary Hospital v. Superior Court (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 261, 75 Cal.Rptr.3d 519

A man whose mother died while in the care and custody of a hospital owned by a tax-exempt religious corporation, filed an action for elder abuse against the hospital, seeking punitive damages. The hospital moved to strike the punitive damage, citing Code of Civil Procedure section 425.14, which provides that no claim for punitive damages may be made against a religious corporation unless a trial court first concludes that the plaintiff has evidence which “substantiates that he or she will meet the clear and convincing standard of proof” under Civil Code section 3294.

The plaintiff opposed the motion, relying upon the California Supreme Court’s ruling in Covenant Care, Inc. v. Superior Court (2004), 32 Cal.4th 771, which held that C.C.P. section 425.13, a statute imposing similar requirements in actions against health care providers, was inapplicable in elder abuse cases. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the rationale articulated in Covenant Care to exclude elder abuse-related punitive damages claims from the requirements of section 425.13 applied equally to claims against religious organizations. However, the court of appeal issued a writ of mandate directing the court to strike the punitive damage claim, holding that section 424.14 applies to claims for punitive damages against religious health care providers, even in the context of elder abuse actions:

“Section 425.13 expressly applies only to actions “arising out of the professional negligence of a health care provider.” It is limited both by the identity of the defendant and the nature of the plaintiff’s claim. In contrast to the limiting language contained in section 425.13, nothing in the language of section 425.14 makes its applicability dependent on the conduct of the religious organization. By its terms, section 425.14’s requirements must be satisfied whenever the defendant is a religious organization, regardless of the nature of the conduct giving rise to the plaintiff’s claim.
. . .
Contrary to Marin’s argument, section 425.14’s threshold pleading requirement neither restricts the heightened penalties authorized under the Elder Abuse Act nor increases the plaintiff’s burden of proof. It simply mandates a prima facie showing of merit supporting allegations of recklessness, oppression or fraud earlier in the proceedings, rather than later. Nothing in the application of section 425.14 to religious health care providers in elder abuse actions dilutes the purpose of providing heightened civil penalties to litigants and their attorneys prosecuting legitimate elder abuse claims.

In sum, religious health care providers, like any other religious organization, may invoke section 425.14 to require a plaintiff to substantiate a punitive damage claim before that claim may be brought, even if the claim is not subject to section 425.13. We recognize our holding necessarily means a religious health care provider has greater protection from unsubstantiated punitive damage claims than afforded secular health care providers. Whatever the merits of that differentiation between religious not-for-profit entities and their secular counterparts, that is precisely what the Legislature intended.”

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