Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Elements of Negligence

There are a number of different ways to get injured, unfortunately. People may slip, or a person may be involved in a motor vehicle accident with someone else. Others may even fall from a shoddy building.

Injured persons all share a common possible cause of action: negligence. The person that slipped may have stepped on a banana peel left on the ground by a business employee; the person who struck the injured's vehicle may have been speeding; and the building, where the injured fell, may have not been up to regulatory code.

Negligence is common. Although there may be an infinite number of ways that negligence could occur, the elements of negligence are always the same. For a claimant/plaintiff to be successful, he or she must prove duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. Let's go through the elements in more depth.

Duty and breach of duty is what makes a defendant "negligent." As individuals of society, we have duties to one another. We have a duty not to harm someone from our actions -- we must use reasonable care. Further, some individuals in society may have more duties than others. A business owner is obligated to provide safe products, i.e. he has a duty to ensure that what he or she is selling is safe. A driver of a motor vehicle must also ensure that he or she is obeying all laws, and driving with due care.

When someone does not live up to their duty to another, or breaches that duty, he or she may be "negligent." For example, let's take a motor vehicle accident. Person A was speeding, talking on his cell phone, and eating a burrito. Upon approaching Person B, Person A could not stop his vehicle in time. Person A's truck slammed into Person's B tiny car. The accident is intense. In this example, Person A breached his duty to drive with due care, and he was "negligent" to Person B.

Being "negligent" does not prove negligence though. There are four elements, not two. A claimant/plaintiff must also show causation and damages.

Causation must connect the "negligent" act with the injuries incurred (damages, which we will discuss shortly). For example, if a person fell from a shoddy building, the building owner still may not be liable for the injuries. Why? Maybe causation cannot be proved. Even though the building was not up to code, the breach of not following the building codes had nothing to do with why the person fell from the building. The falling person was pushed by a criminal. In this example, the building owner cannot be responsible because his failure to not keep the building up to code did not cause the person to fall -- the criminal who pushed him off was responsible for the fall.

Finally, any negligence claim must prove damages. Damages are those monetary costs that an injured person may face: medical bills, car repair bills, rental bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, etc. If someone is involved in an accident, but fortunately, the person is not harmed, he or she does not have a negligence case. There must be damages for any case to proceed.

Negligence may be a common occurrence in the law, and laypersons may be familiar with some of the concepts, but it is wise to consult with an attorney who has experience in personal injury. If you or a loved one has been injured as the result of someone else, contact our office for a free phone consultation. Be safe out there.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Will the Natural and Probable Consequences Doctine be Rejected in California?

A majority of murder, and other violent crimes, in California are gang related. Indeed, most of the post-conviction work that I have taken part in involves allegations of gang affiliation. Due to the nature of such crimes -- multiple individuals and lack of physical or testimonial evidence, the prosecution necessarily relies upon aider and abettor theories of criminal liability.

Under an aider and abettor theory, defendants can be convicted if they merely assist, encourage, or facilitate a crime. More specifically, they do not have to be the actual perpetrator of the physical crime against the victim.

Moreover, a defendant can be convicted if he or she aided a "target" crime, which naturally and foreseeably could have led to a more violent crime -- like murder.

In June of this year, however, the California Supreme Court curbed the "natural and probable consequences" doctrine. The criminal doctrine allows for the prosecution of aiders and abettors when they participate in a crime that was "reasonably foreseeable" to the target crime. In sum, an individual can be guilty of murder, if he assisted in a crime, which murder was a "natural and probable consequence." The rationale of the doctrine is deterring accomplices from partaking in criminal acts that may foreseeably lead to other more violent crimes.

But in People v. Chiu (2014) 59 Cal.4th 155, the California Supreme Court held that a defendant can never be convicted of first degree premeditated murder on a natural and probable consequence theory. In Chiu, the defendant engaged in a street brawl involving 25 youths. The high school students fought one another indiscriminately until one of them shot and killed another young man. The defendant was charged with first-degree murder under the theory that he aided and abetted an "assault," which premeditated murder of the perpetrator was a natural and probable consequence. Defendant was sentenced to 25 years to life after he was found guilty of first-degree murder. The California Supreme Court reversed because they did not think that the defendant could have had the mental intent necessary for first degree murder.

Now prosecutors must rely on evidence to show that defendants had the specific intent to aid a premeditated murder. It is insufficient to argue the natural and probable consequence doctrine, as Chiu negated its application to first-degree murder cases. This decision implies that the California Supreme Court wants to depart from the wide application of the natural and probable consequence doctrine. Chiu stated, in part:

"[T]he connection between the defendant's culpability and the perpetrators premeditative state is too attenuated to impose aider and abettor liability for first degree murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine, especially in light of the severe penalty involved and … the public policy concern of deterrence."

It appears that Justice Chin opens up to the possibility that there may be other instances where an element of the non-target crime is so detached that the natural and probable consequence theory would not serve public policy. Other states do not even apply the natural and probable consequences theory, so it's possible that the California Supreme Court would withdrawal, or at least curb, its unjust application. 

In fact, California may reject the entire doctrine. The California Supreme Court has granted review of a separate natural and probable consequence doctrine case in People v. Smith (Vince Bryan), S210898, D060317 Fourth Appellate District, Division 1.

Violent crimes, instigated by gang rivalries, are senseless and destructive to the community. But, when individuals are convicted of crimes that they did not intend or anticipate in directly, it also hurts the community. Many young men are duped into following irresponsible older gang members, who have no regard for societal mores. Lawbreakers should, and need, to be punished. Let's just make sure that the punishment is just and follows the rule of law.