Factual and Procedural Background
George Isaak, an 84-year-old retired farmer, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the summer of 2020 after years of using paraquat pesticides for agricultural purposes on his fields. This type of pesticide has been linked to Parkinson’s disease. Isaak suffered multiple impairments as a result of his condition, including cognitive impacts, fatigue, weakness, the inability to walk, and incontinence.
Numerous parties across the U.S. had already filed lawsuits against the manufacturers of paraquat-containing pesticides, and some of the California plaintiffs had filed a petition with the court to form a Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding (JCCP). This type of proceeding coordinates all of the lawsuits with similar injuries against the same defendants to share and coordinate discovery and streamline the litigation. By March 2021, some related cases in Illinois had nearly completed discovery and were scheduled for trial beginning in April 2021. The JCCP parties agreed that the depositions taken in the Illinois cases could be treated as if they had been taken in California for litigation purposes. However, they anticipated additional discovery would be needed, including of the plaintiffs.
Isaak and his wife filed a product liability lawsuit against Syngenta AG, Syngenta Crop Protection, Wilbur Ellis, and Chevron USA in Aug. 2021. They asked the court for a preference under Cal. Civ. Proc. § 36, which provides for expedited scheduling of trials for plaintiffs older than age 70 with substantial interests in the litigation who might lose their substantive rights if their trials are not given preference over other matters. Isaak requested that the court set a trial in his case beginning in Dec. 2021. The defendants filed an objection, arguing that the JCCP controlled and that discovery could not be completed before Dec. 2021.
The trial court found that Rule 36 was designed to protect plaintiffs like Isaak. However, it found that the JCCP controlled and denied his request for preference under Rule 36. Instead, the court adopted a case management order for the JCCP in which the JCCP parties could determine which cases should be granted preference to be heard first. Isaak filed a petition for a writ of mandate with the Court of Appeal, and the defendants filed a reply.
Issue: Whether Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 36 supersedes Cal. Rules of Court R. 3.504?
The plaintiffs argued that Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 36 superseded Cal. Rules of Court R. 3.504 because § 36 involved substantive rights while Rule 3.504 involved matters of scheduling convenience. The defendants argued that Rule 3.504 took precedence when coordinated proceedings have been formed.
Rule: Plaintiffs over age 70 in product liability cases can file a motion with the trial court to request a preferential trial setting date, and the court shall grant the request if it finds that the plaintiff has a substantial interest in the litigation and that the plaintiff’s health is of a poor condition and could prejudice his or her interests.
Under Cal. Civ. Proc. § 36, plaintiffs in product liability cases who are age 70 or older can file motions with the court to ask for a preference in a trial setting. The court must grant the motion if it finds that the plaintiff has a substantial interest in the litigation and is in such poor health that failing to hold the trial sooner might result in the plaintiff’s losing his or her interests in the outcome of the litigation. The case must then be set for trial within 120 days. However, Cal. Rules of Court R. 3.504, which governs coordinated actions, states that it prevails over conflicting sections of law. The courts had not previously considered whether the scheduling under a coordinated action prevailed over a preference motion or not.
Over the past decade, the link between paraquat pesticides and the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease has become known. Many agricultural workers have developed Parkinson’s disease after using these types of pesticides for agricultural applications. As the link has become known, California paraquat injury attorneys have filed lawsuits against the manufacturers of these pesticides on behalf of people who have developed Parkinson’s disease after years of exposure. These lawsuits allege that the manufacturers were aware of the risks but failed to inform the public.
The Court of Appeal began its analysis by noting that whether the preference rules under CCP § 36 superseded the rules governing coordinated proceedings under the JCCP had not been resolved by the courts. Civil actions that are pending in different courts can be coordinated under the JCCP when they deal with the same questions of law or fact. Coordinated proceedings allow for greater convenience for the parties and the courts.
Under Cal. Civ. Proc. § 404.7, which governs coordinated proceedings under the JCCP, the Judicial Council is granted the authority to establish trial settings and a calendar for the presentation of evidence notwithstanding the provisions of other laws.  However, § 36 allows plaintiffs older than 70 with serious health conditions who have a substantial interest in the litigation to petition the court for a preference and a trial set within 120 days.
The plaintiffs argued that § 36 superseded § 404.7 because it deals with a plaintiff’s substantive rights while the JCCP only deals with matters of convenience. They also argued that since § 36 was enacted after the JCCP, it superseded the earlier law because the legislators knew about the trial setting provisions of the JCCP when they passed the preference rule for vulnerable plaintiffs.
In Isaak’s case, the trial court found that it was not possible for his trial to be set within 120 days since the discovery was not nearly completed in his matter. Expert witnesses had not been identified or deposed, and the relationship between paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s disease required significant scientific investigation before the case would be ready for trial.
The plaintiffs argued that § 36 mandates preference in cases like Isaak’s regardless of the scheduling authority granted under the JCCP. However, the Court of Appeal noted the use of the word “notwithstanding” in reference to other laws and rules in § 404.7 in the grant of authority to the Judicial Council to set trials for coordinated actions. The court also found that § 36 did not repeal § 404.7 when an individual plaintiff otherwise meets the requirements for a preference. Instead, by the plain meaning of the language used in § 404.7, it found that the authority granted for coordinated actions was meant to prevail over any contrary provisions contained in other laws.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision and denied the plaintiffs’ petition for a writ of mandate. It ordered the plaintiffs to pay the defendants’ costs on appeal.
Consult Our Experienced Product Liability Attorneys
If you developed Parkinson’s disease after years of using pesticides containing paraquat, you should consult the experienced product liability attorneys at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC. Call us today for a free consultation at 866.966.5240.