A contentious legal principle – some would call it archaic – that has governed personal injury and wrongful death claims in California courts for three decades was overturned in August when California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2159, a new statute that will prohibit the admission of any evidence in personal injury and wrongful death cases that is related to a plaintiff’s immigration status.

In Rodriguez v. Kline in 1986, California’s Second District Court of Appeal had ruled that when an immigrant is working illegally in the United States and files a personal injury claim – and if that claim prevails – the immigrant/plaintiff/victim should be compensated for future damages (that is, loss of future earning capacity) based on what the immigrant would have earned in his or her home nation and not based on what the immigrant would be paid in California. Since 1986, concerns have mounted that the Rodriguez ruling was discriminatory and simply unfair.

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AB 2159 now compels California courts to treat all plaintiffs equally and without regard to anyone’s immigration status or nation of birth. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego sponsored the bill, and it was introduced in the State Senate by Senator Isadore Hall of Compton. After its adoption by the State Assembly, AB 2159 was approved by a 28-to-11 vote in the State Senate on August 1 and sent to Governor Brown.

HOW MUCH SUPPORT DID AB 2159 HAVE?

The legislation was supported by the Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the ACLU of California, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the California Catholic Conference, the Consumer Federation of California, Equality California, and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Thanks to their efforts, the California State Legislature, and Governor Brown’s signature, state law now guarantees the equal treatment of all Californians regarding compensation for injuries caused by another person’s negligence.

In the years since 1986, the Rodriguez decision has been cited in a number of personal injury cases to reduce, many would say unfairly, the compensation for catastrophically-injured immigrants who are undocumented in California. In some cases, the plaintiffs had worked and paid taxes for years in this state. CAOC President Elise R. Sanguinetti said, “This bill corrects an antiquated legal decree that for too long undercut the true meaning of justice in our nation of immigrants.”

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For several decades, California has been considered the nation’s most progressive state, and the California State Legislature has passed a number of laws that protect the legal rights of undocumented individuals. However, these legal protections have not extended to undocumented individuals who seek compensation for their injuries through the civil court system. Currently, when undocumented persons are injured because of the negligence of others, they in effect suffer discrimination.

WHEN WILL AB 2159 BECOME LAW?

Assembly Bill 2159 will go into effect on January 1, 2017. “Our courts,” Ms. Sanguinetti added, “should treat all people equally when they are wrongfully injured or killed, not operate as a two-tier system that drastically undervalues compensation because of a person’s immigration status. We applaud Assembly Member Gonzalez and Gov. Brown for restoring fairness to that process in our civil courts.”

Determining a fair amount of compensation for the damages that an injury victim suffers in an accident caused by negligence is difficult. Adding in a completely inessential factor – the wage rates in a nation that might be halfway around the world – only made a difficult task even more complicated. In a California personal injury proceeding, the plaintiff’s lawyer – a Fresno personal injury attorney, for example – typically advocates for an award that will fully compensate the plaintiff for the economic and noneconomic losses that he or she has suffered due to the accident and injury.

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To calculate the sum that should be sought, an injury victim and his or her attorney must consider medical bills, lost wages, prescription costs, and all related expenses – such as child care if an injury victim is unable to care for his or her children – along with pain, suffering, anguish, and an estimate of the future earning capacity that has been lost if the recuperation is lengthy or if the injury is permanently disabling.

WHAT FACTORS ARE CONSIDERED IN PERSONAL INJURY AWARDS?

While a personal injury victim’s immigration standing and his or her nation of origin will no longer be a consideration in California’s personal injury cases thanks to Assembly Bill 2159, a number of other factors will still be routinely considered by a judge or jury when determining the amount of a personal injury compensation award. Those factors can and usually do include such information as:

  • the victim’s age and health before the accident, and especially any preexisting conditions
  • the victim’s family status, childcare, and school or job responsibilities
  • the victim’s education, work experience, and his or her capacity to learn new job skills

When the bill was signed, the Consumer Attorneys of California issued a press release which read, in part: “Gov. Brown’s action today continues the progress California has made in providing equal legal treatment to all Californians. Immigration status is irrelevant to the issue of liability under state law, and undocumented workers have equal protection under California’s labor laws.”

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In the state of California, anyone who is injured by a negligent person – an intoxicated driver, a negligent doctor, or an irresponsible property owner, for example – is legally entitled to complete compensation for medical care, lost wages, and all injury-related expenses and losses – including future losses. Being “entitled,” however, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Plaintiffs have to prove they were injured, and they have to prove that a defendant’s negligence was the direct cause of the injury or injuries. They’ll need legal help in central California from a Fresno personal injury attorney.

Immigration has been good for the United States and particularly for the state of California. A recent study produced by Startup Compass, a San Francisco firm that provides assistance to new high-tech companies, found that in Silicon Valley, “More than 50 percent of start-ups are founded by immigrants and more than 70 percent of engineers are immigrants.” It’s long past time that immigrants in California were treated just like everyone else; Assembly Bill 2159 ensures that when immigrants file personal injury claims, they will be.