Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Rodriguez v. Bethlehem Steel Corp

Citation. Rodriguez v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 12 Cal. 3d 382, 525 P.2d 669, 115 Cal. Rptr. 765, 1974 Cal. LEXIS 234 (Cal. 1974)

Brief Fact Summary. Mary Anne Rodriguez brought suit for loss of consortium after her husband was severely injured at work. The trial and appellate court found that the claim was not cognizable due to previous precedent.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. When a defendant negligent causes injury to a married party and it is foreseeable that such injury would negatively affect the spouse of the injured party, a duty of care arises and the spouse may bring suit for loss of consortium.

Facts. Richard and Mary Anne Rodriguez were married and gainfully employed. They were saving to buy their own home and raise a large family. Richard was severely injured at work leaving him paralyzed and a lifelong invalid. Mary was forced to quit her job to physically care for Richard in all manners. The psychological strain on Mary was extreme, in that her life was severely restricted, she had to witness her husband’s anguish, and all capacity for sexual intercourse was lost. Richard brought suit against his employers and various subcontractors, and Mary also brought suit praying for general damages in her own right, the reasonable value of the nursing care she provides her husband, and compensation for loss of earnings and earning capacity. The trial court disallowed Mary’s claims based on previous precedent preventing a wife from recovery when her husband is severely injured. The appellate court affirmed.

Issue. Should California continue to adhere to the rule that a married person whose spouse has been injured by the negligence of a third party has no cause of action for loss of consortium?

Held. Previous precedent is overruled and each spouse has a cause of action for loss of consortium caused b a negligent or intentional injury to the other spouse by a third party.
Stare Decisis would suggest that no cause of action should lie for loss of consortium. However, there has been a dramatic reversal in the weight of authority on this question. The claim that such actions should be left to the legislature is unsupportable because in the common law system the primary instruments of evolution have been the courts.

Previous case law disallowed loss of consortium because any harm sustained occurred only indirectly. However, the critical question is foreseeability, and the foreseeable risk need not be physical impact, but may also be emotional trauma alone. A defendant who negligently causes a severely disabling injury to an adult may reasonably expect the injured party to be married and that the spouse will be adversely affected by the injury.

Precedent also disallowed loss of consortium because the measurement of damages would require conjecture. However, the detriment is genuine, and while monetary loss may be difficult to calculate it must be resolved by the jurors.

Another argument for disallowing the claim is that other persons having a close relationship to the injured party would seek to enforce similar claims. However, the alleged inability to fix definitions for recovery in future cases does not justify the denial of recovery on the specific facts of the instant case. The general principles of negligence law limit liability to persons and injuries within the scope of the reasonably foreseeable risk.

The final argument against allowing loss of consortium is a fear of double recovery. However, there is far more to the marriage than the financial losses relating to the injury. Destruction of the sexual life of the couple, of conjugal society, comfort, affection, companionship, and moral support are all recoverable by the spouse. To avoid double jeopardy all that is necessary is to insure that the wife is not awarded damages to which the husband is primarily entitled.

Discussion. The Court found that policy concerns required the tort of loss of consortium to be recoverable. Its reasoning included the disproportionate treatment of widows, who were permitted to recover for the wrongful death of their spouses.