By: Jon A. Turigliatto, Esq. and Chelsea L. Zwart, Esq.
December 9, 2016
NEW CALIFORNIA EVIDENCE CODE SECTION 351.2 PROHIBITS DISCOVERY AND ADMISSIBILITY OF A PERSON’S IMMIGRATION STATUS FOR PURPOSES OF LIMITING DAMAGE CLAIMS.
On January 1, 2017, AB 2159, which prohibits discovery related to a person’s immigration status in personal injury and wrongful death actions, will become effective, adding Section 351.2 to the California Evidence Code and overturning Rodriguez v. Kline (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 1146.
Under Rodriguez v. Kline, an individual injured in the United States who is subject to deportation is not entitled to compensation based upon his or her projected earning capacity in the United States, but rather may only recovery damages for lost future income the individual would have earned in his or her country of origin. Later case law applied Rodriguez v. Kline to the recovery of medical costs, limiting recovery by an undocumented person to the amount the individual would have incurred for medical treatment in his or her country of origin.
Newly introduced Evidence Code Section 351.2 states:
(a) In a civil action for personal injury or wrongful death, evidence of a person’s immigration status shall not be admitted into evidence, nor shall discovery into a person’s immigration status be permitted.
(b) This section does not affect the standards of relevance, admissibility, or discovery prescribed by Section 3339 of the Civil Code, Section 7285 of the Government Code, Section 24000 of the Health and Safety Code, and Section 1171.5 of the Labor Code.
Proponents of Section 351.2, which effectively invalidates Rodriguez v. Kline, assert that the rationale behind the new law is to ensure that personal injury and wrongful death victims are not penalized for their immigration status and to protect undocumented immigrants from being exploited. The intent is to equalize compensation received by persons who work and live in California and thus should be entitled to equal treatment in the California court system, regardless of immigration status.
By prohibiting the discovery and admissibility of a plaintiff’s immigration status, the new code section will have a severe impact on defendants’ potential exposure for damages relating to lost income and medical expenses. After January 1, 2017, an undocumented person’s loss of earnings claim will no longer be limited to wages earned in his or her country of origin, but will rather be based on the individual’s income in the United States, whether here legally or not. The same will be true for medical expenses, which will be based on those actually incurred.
Historically, many undocumented plaintiffs did not pursue loss of earnings claims as defendants regularly pointed to immigration status as a way to significantly lower potential exposure for such claims. Given that earnings and medical costs are generally substantially higher in the United States than in countries from which people immigrate without documentation, the enactment of Evidence Code Section 351.2 will deliberately result in larger awards for loss of income and medical expenses to injured immigrants.