The standard statute of limitations for a party to bring a personal injury or wrongful death actions is two years. There are, however, circumstances in which the statute of limitations for such causes of action are extended. The victim of a felony in California, for example, has an extended statute of limitations in which to bring an action for personal injury or wrongful death against the person convicted of that felony. (Code Civ. Proc., § 340.3) In Cardenas v. Horizon, the California Court of Appeal made a notable ruling limiting the extended statute of limitations, holding such an extension does not apply to the convicted felon's employer. The Court further held that Labor Code section 2802, which allows an employee to be indemnified by his or her employer, does not apply to third parties in this circumstance.
Mauricio Cardenas ("Cardenas") lived at Horizon Senior Living, Inc. ("Horizon"). Cardenas was diagnosed with dementia and as a result of his condition often wandered off the premises without the staff's knowledge. On the occasion in question, Cardenas wandered several miles from the facility and was struck by a car and killed. Christopher Skiff ("Skiff") was the director of the Horizon facility at the time of this incident. Gary Potts ("Potts") was the manager. Skiff was later convicted of felony elder abuse and manslaughter in connection with Cardenas' death and Potts was convicted of felony elder abuse. Horizon was not found guilty of any crimes.
After the criminal case, the heirs of Cardenas brought a civil claim against Horizon, Skiff and Potts for negligence, willful misconduct, elder abuse and wrongful death. In the first amended complaint the plaintiffs alleged that Horizon was not licensed to care for dementia patients, the defendants failed to comply with the standard of care and that the defendants knew or should have known the risk of injury for failure to comply with the standard of care.
Horizon demurred to the complaint stating that it was barred by the two year statute of limitations. Plaintiffs assert that despite the passage of the statute of limitations the felony convictions of Skiff and Potts revived the time period allowed to bring a civil suit. They also claim that Horizon could be held responsible under the doctrine of respondeat superior and that their claim against all three parties were revived even though Horizon was not convicted of any crimes.
Statute of Limitations
Generally pursuant to Code of Civ. Proc. section 335.1, claims for wrongful death and injury must be brought within two years. However, that timeline is extended in certain circumstances such as those described under Code of Civ. Proc. Section 340.3, subdivision (a) which states, "[u]nless a longer period is prescribed for a specific section, in any action for damages against a defendant has been convicted, the time for commencement of the action shall be within one year after judgment is pronounced." (Emphasis added.) In other words, if a defendant is convicted of a crime in criminal court relating to the facts of the civil suit, the plaintiffs will have an additional year to file for wrongful death or injury in civil court.
The Court here found that the civil causes of action against Skiff and Potts were effectively revived after their convictions in criminal court and that the subsequent lawsuit against them was filed in a timely manner under Section 340.3. As to Horizon, however, the statute of limitations has clearly run. Horizon was not convicted of any offenses in criminal court. Therefore, Section 340.3 does not apply to any claims brought against Horizon.
Plaintiffs argued secondarily that claims based on respondeat superior do not have a statute of limitations. Respondeat superior holds employers responsible for the wrongful acts of employees. Despite this, the Court reiterated that there is a two year statute of limitations on actions claiming personal injury and wrongful death. Therefore, a theory under the doctrine of respondeat superior does not change the outcome.
Finally, the plaintiffs sought recourse by way of the Victims' Bill of Rights. Although victims have a right to seek compensation, the Court found it did not apply here. Under the provision in article 1, section 28 of the California Constitution, victims have the right to seek restitution "from the persons convicted of the crimes causing the losses they suffer." As stated above, Horizon was not convicted of a crime so this section was also not applicable to the situation at hand.
Is Horizon Liable Under Labor Code Section 2802?
Labor Code section 2802 provides that, "[a]n employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer, even though unlawful, unless the employee, at the time of obeying the employer, even though unlawful, unless the employee, at the time of obeying the directions, believed them to be unlawful."
Although this section of the Labor Code permits an employee to be indemnified by his or her employer. It does “not provide access to the employer’s or its insurer’s pocketbook through a third party suit against the employee.” Boyer v. Jensen, (2005) 129 Cal.App.4th 62, 74. Thus, the Court held that plaintiffs had no cause of action against Horizon based on Labor Code section 2802.
The fact that Horizon was not convicted of a crime in criminal court is determinative. Without a conviction, the plaintiffs have no recourse to revive the time to file an action for wrongful death or personal injury under the statute of limitations, or any other provision. Horizon was also not liable to the plaintiffs pursuant to Labor Code section 2802 as this section does not open up the employer to liability by way of a third party suit against an employee.
The ruling in Cardenas provides employers with finality regarding the statute of limitations related to felonious actions of employees.