What Are the Rights of Undocumented Immigrants in California Personal Injury Cases?
Under California law, those injured due to the negligence or wrongdoing of others are entitled to compensation for medical bills, lost income, and emotional distress. Determining how much a victim is entitled to receive can become complicated when the victim is an undocumented immigrant. A California injury attorney cites one recent case to assert that justice can be won regardless of immigration status.
Undocumented Immigrant Awarded $58 Million in California Injury Case
Antonio Lopez Chaj was an undocumented immigrant when he was involved in a fight in the Pico Union area of Los Angeles, California. Chaj, his brother and his two nephews were at La Barra Latina on April 19, 2010 when the bartender refused to serve one of the nephews. The nephew called the bartender a name, and the bartender attacked.
A security guard subsequently became involved in the fight and began using a baton to hit Chaj’s relatives. Chaj attempted to intervene in the fight but the security guard struck him repeatedly in the head, pulled him outside and then continued to hit him and slam his head into the pavement. The security guard initially denied using the metal baton, for which he allegedly had neither license nor permit.
Chaj sustained serious injuries in the fight. Doctors had to remove a portion of his brain and skull. While he recognizes his loved ones, he will be severely impaired for the rest of his life. Chaj and his family obtained a personal injury attorney to take legal action against the security company, DGSP Security and Patrol Services, which employed the security guard. The security guard disappeared during the civil trial, but the security company had an unlimited insurance policy.
While Chaj was clearly able to present evidence that the security company should be liable for the serious injuries caused by their employee, there were concerns regarding what the injured man would be entitled to as a result of his undocumented status.
The California jury awarded him $58 million in economic and medical losses, reported the Los Angeles Times. The damages included $11.5 million for ongoing and future medical expenses; $35 million for past pain and suffering; and $11 million for future pain and suffering. Chaj’s personal injury attorneys anticipate that the security company will ask the judge to reduce the verdict or will appeal the decision.
The Rights of Undocumented Immigrants in Personal Injury Cases
Under California law, personal injury plaintiffs are entitled to seek compensation for medical expenses, lost income and wages, and non-economic losses, such as pain and suffering, explains the attorney. When the plaintiff is an undocumented immigrant, however, questions can be raised regarding whether the damages should be awarded based on U.S. rates or based on rates applicable in the plaintiff’s country of origin.
The Court of Appeal of California for the Second Appellate District considered the question of a plaintiff’s immigration status in a 1986 case called Rodriguez v. Kline. In that case, the plaintiff was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who was harmed in a traffic accident. The court at the time allowed evidence of estimated future earnings both in Mexico and in the United States and left it up to the jury to determine which to apply based on whether the jury thought that the plaintiff was subject to deportation.
The California jury returned a verdict but did not make clear whether the personal injury plaintiff was compensated based on expected earning capacity in the U.S. or in Mexico. The defendant’s attorney appealed the judgment and the appellate court said that the trial court should determine the plaintiff’s immigration status as a matter of law. In other words, the judge would decide the issue outside of the presence of a jury. The defendant has the burden of proving that the victim is subject to deportation when the judge considers immigration status. If the defendant meets this burden, then the personal injury plaintiff next has the burden of proving steps have been taken to correct the deportable condition.
Today, the Rodriguez v. Kline decision still applies to civil actions where a plaintiff seeks compensation based on lost wages. In this case, however, the damage award is not based on lost earnings but instead based on medical expenses and pain and suffering. The jury made the decision that Chaj’s case was worth $58 million based on the significant personal injury that he endured, and the verdict is reflective of the fact that juries are willing to fully compensate injured victims regardless of their immigration status.
The outcome in the case makes clear that even undocumented immigrants can receive justice in California courts.
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