The Third Circuit Court of Appeal in California has recently issued a ruling in Corenbaum v. Lampkin (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1308, that, in my opinion as an attorney that represents injured victims in California, has simply added insult to injury to a terrible decision issued in prior CA Supreme Court case, Howell v. Hamilton Meats, Co. As I discussed at length in a blog post last year (click here), the Howell decision basically held that persons claiming personal injury in California who had health insurance at the time of the incident could only introduce the amount paid by health insurance as evidence of the reasonable value of past medical expenses. What that decision left open is whether or not a plaintiff should be limited to introducing evidence of health insurance paid amounts for purposes of arguing the value of future medical services or non-economic damages (pain and suffering). These issues were addressed in the Corembaum case.
Background of Corenbaum Decision Regarding Evidence in Personal Injury Trials in California
The plaintiffs in Corenbaum were two passengers in a taxicab in Los Angeles when they were involved in a motor vehicle accident where the driver (who was under the influence of alcohol at the time) hit the cab and then fled the scene. They brought civil claims for damages against the at fault driver and took the case to a jury trial. Prior to trial the plaintiff moved to exclude any evidence of health insurance payments for any of the medical costs incurred as a result of the traffic collision. As was customary prior to the Howell decision, the defendant moved to hold a post-trial motion to reduce the amounts awarded to plaintiffs based upon actual amounts paid by insurance rather than the amounts billed by the health care provider. The court granted both motions and allowed the plaintiff to introduce the actual amounts billed for all medical services provided to them as a result of the incident. The jury awarded one plaintiff $1,834,602.00 and the other $1,392,141, in combined damages for past medical expenses, future medical expenses and pain and suffering. The post trial motion to reduce was held and the award was knocked down to $1,537,985.00 and $1,108,362.00 respectively based upon the difference between what was billed by the health care providers and what was ultimately paid by health insurance for the past medical expenses.
The defendant appealed the verdict and argued, in pertinent part, that the amount of the actual medical bills issued should not have been introduced into evidence based upon the Howell v. Hamilton Meats ruling. The plaintiff’s argued that the Howell ruling was that such evidence was not admissible to show past economic damages but, it should be introduced for the purposes of showing the value of future medical costs and/or pain and suffering damages. The Court of Appeal disagreed and held that such evidence is inadmissible for any purpose and reversed the award and ordered a new trial for the purpose of determining damages.
Why Is This Another Bad Decision for Personal Injury Victims in California?
California, like most other jurisdictions in the U.S., purports to follow the “collateral source rule”. This rule prohibits the introduction of evidence of insurance for any purpose in a personal injury trial. The public policy rationale is supposed to be that persons should not be penalized for having obtained health insurance to pay for unexpected medical expenses and the defendant should be rewarded for such prudence either. Quite frankly, the California courts were, in my opinion, violating this rule even under the “pre-Howell” scheme of allowing the plaintiff to introduce the full amount of her or her medical bills and then allowing the trial judge to reduce the award of past medical expenses to what insurance actually paid. The Howell case made the collateral source rule irrelevant by mandating that evidence of insurance payments alone should be introduced at trial as the “reasonable value of medical services”. The Corenbaum case takes this one step further by not allowing evidence of medical bills even for purposes of calculating future medical expenses or pain and suffering.
Although there are specific jury instructions which state that the jurors in a personal injury claim in CA are not bound by any specific formula in calculating pain and suffering, trial lawyers all know that jurors have preconceived notions that their award for physical pain or emotional distress is somehow tied to the medical bills. Three times the medicals or similar factors is a common “formula” that many jurors have in their minds. We also know that medical insurance providers require drastic reductions between the amount that doctors and hospitals charge patients without insurance and what they will pay pursuant to contract. While this makes sense to keep the cost of medical insurance down, it should not have any affect on what a plaintiff should be able to argue are his or her “reasonable costs” of either past or future medical expenses much less be able to affect what a jury might award a plaintiff for pain and suffering damages. In my opinion as a California plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer, this case is adding further insult to the injury of a bad decision. I am hopeful that current efforts being made by the Consumer Attorneys of California and other consumer interest groups in the Golden State will result in legislation overturning both Howell and Corenbaum! California injury victims deserve better!!