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Ninth Circuit: California Law Prohibiting Recovery of Loss of Life Damages Inconsistent With § 1983

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California that Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 377.34’s prohibition on recovery of loss of life damages is inconsistent with 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and thus doesn’t bar recovery of such damages under § 1983 for violations of federal law.

A jury awarded Fermin Vincent Valenzuela Jr.’s children and his father (“Plaintiffs”) $13.2 million against the City of Anaheim and police officers Daniel Wolfe, Woojin Jun, and Daniel Gonzalez (“Defendants”) in relation to his death at the hands of the officers. Defendants argued in post-trial motions that because § 377.34 does not permit loss of life damages, then Plaintiffs should not be permitted the $3.6 million loss-of-life damages in their § 1983 suit. The district court disagreed and denied Defendants’ motions. Defendants appealed.

The Court observed that because the relevant federal law is silent as to loss of life damages, California law controls “unless it is inconsistent with policies of § 1983.” Chaudhry v. City of Los Angeles, 751 F.3d 1096 (9th Cir. 2014). The Court explained that § 1983 is a remedial statute and should be “broadly construed” to provide a remedy “against all forms of official violation of federally protected rights.” Dennis v. Higgins, 498 U.S. 439 (1991). The purpose of § 1983 is to compensation those injured by a “deprivation of federal rights and [serve as a] deterrence to prevent future abuses of power.” Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584 (1978).

In Chaudhry, the Ninth Circuit addressed whether § 377.34’s prohibition on pre-death pain and suffering damages prevents § 1983 plaintiffs from obtaining such relief. The Chaudhry Court recognized that “[o]ne of Congress’s primary goals in enacting § 1983 was to provide a remedy for killings caused or acquiesced in by state governments” and that “[i]n cases where the victim dies quickly, there often will be no damage remedy at all under § 377.34.” Chaudhry. Because California’s bar on such relief had “the perverse effect of making it more economically advantageous for a defendant to kill rather than injure his victim,” the Chaudhry Court ruled that § 377.34 clashed with § 1983’s remedial purpose and undermined its deterrence policy. Thus, the Chaudhry Court held “[s]ection 377.34 therefore does not apply to § 1983 claims where the decedent’s death was caused by the violation of federal law.” Id. In reaching that conclusion, the court relied in part on Bell v. City of Milwaukee, 746 F.2d 1205 (7th Cir. 1984), a § 1983 case which rejected Wisconsin laws barring loss of life damages because that actually made it “more advantageous [for officials] to kill rather than injure.”

Following its review of the relevant case law, the Court declared that there’s no meaningful way to distinguish Chaudhry from the instant case. Both involved deaths caused by a violation of federal law, and both considered the limits that California’s § 377.34 impose on § 1983 plaintiffs—limits that have already been squarely rejected. Following Chaudhry, the Court held that § 377.34’s prohibition on loss of life damages is inconsistent with § 1983.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court. See: Valenzuela v. City of Anaheim, 6 F.4th 1098 (9th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Valenzuela v. City of Anaheim



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