Bad Bill Becomes Law: Time Limits on Mesothelioma Plaintiff Depositions Enacted in California

California Governor Gavin Newsom has signed Senate Bill 645 into law. This law imposes stringent time limits on asbestos defendants’ deposition examination of a mesothelioma or silicosis plaintiff. (See prior post here.)

SB 645’s passage comes after a summer of highly emotional testimony in the legislature by the proponents of the bill. It was ordered to a third and final reading before the California Assembly in July, after passing quickly through the California Senate in June.

The new law places a 7-hour limitation on defendants’ deposition examination of a mesothelioma plaintiff if a licensed physician provides a declaration attesting both that the plaintiff has mesothelioma, and that there is substantial medical doubt of survival beyond 6 months. Defendants may move the court for an additional 3 hours if more than 10 defendants appear at the deposition, and an additional 7 hours if more than 20 defendants appear at the deposition. However, the court may only grant even these minimal extensions of time upon a finding that the extension is in the interest of fairness, and that the health of the plaintiff is not endangered by the grant of additional time.

SB 645 is even worse than California’s prior law, which allowed for 7 hours of deposition testimony, plus an extension of up to 20 hours of total testimony in the trial court’s discretion. The law also seems to override case management orders in counties with heavy asbestos calendars, such as Alameda and Los Angeles counties, where the case management orders regularly provided up to 20 hours for defendants’ deposition testimony in asbestos cases.

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Time Limits on Plaintiff Depositions on Their Way to Becoming Law in California

A bill to unduly limit deposition time is working its way through the California legislature, and likely to pass soon in some form. Senate Bill 645 would limit the deposition of mesothelioma or silicosis plaintiffs to 7 hours. The 7-hour time limit does not include plaintiff’s direct examination or re-direct examination by their counsel. To trigger the 7-hour time limit, the plaintiff must have a doctor declaration showing that the plaintiff has mesothelioma or silicosis and has six months or less to live.

SB 645 has already passed the California Senate and is an active bill in the Assembly. It was amended in the Assembly on July 5, 2019. Amendments to the time limits of SB 645 have been made as follows: A party can seek an order to extend the deposition time limit to 10 hours if there are more than 10 defendants appearing at the deposition. If there are more than 20 defendants appearing at the deposition, a party can seek an order extending the deposition time to 14 hours. This extension of time depends on the number of defendants present at the plaintiff’s deposition, not the number of defendants named in the caption.

SB 645 allows more time for plaintiffs whose health will not be endangered by the grant of additional time. The defense bar has expressed concern that, to avoid the extension of deposition time, plaintiffs will provide doctor declarations saying the plaintiff’s health is at risk, and judge will not extend the time of the deposition.

Given the current climate in Sacramento, SB 645 will likely pass after it is read, with its amendments, for the final time in the Assembly (date not yet set). After SB 645 passes the Assembly, it will go back to the Senate for approval of the amendments before being approved by the Governor. It is likely that SB 645 will become effective by January 2020.

The defense bar has considered potential Constitutional due process arguments against SB 645. It is likely that, at the deposition of a mesothelioma or silicosis plaintiff, some defendant will have no time to ask questions about alternative exposure or claims against their client because the clock ran out. It will take the “perfect test case” to challenge SB 645. Defendants at depositions will need to collaborate and get organized before depos commence, and work together to create a record of due process issues. Defendants will have to push the plaintiff to provide meaningful responses to interrogatories, and point out the lack of information given to each defendant before the deposition.

Come to Me If You Want to Talk to Me; Plaintiffs Can’t Haul Corporate Representative to Deposition in California

Alameda County has one of the most active asbestos dockets in California, with defendants from around the country. Recently, an Alameda judge ruled that non-resident corporate representatives of a non-California defendant cannot be hauled to California for deposition. This result is consistent with prior appellate authority, but many trial judges have compelled California depositions for non-California corporate representatives (known as “persons most qualified” or PMQs in California parlance and “persons most knowledgeable” or PMKs in most other jurisdictions). So this decision is welcome news for defendants seeking to avoid that expense, inconvenience and leverage to plaintiffs.

This issue is addressed by conflicting statutes. One says that a witness is not “obliged to attend as a witness before any court, judge, justice or any other officer, unless the witness is a resident within the state at the time of service.” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 1989.) Other statutes allow for depositions of “an officer, director, management agent or employee” of a party to be set at locations “within the county where the action is pending” or other California locations, with no restrictions based on the residence of the witness.” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 2025.250, 2025.260.)

In Brock v. Metropolitan Life Insurance, Alameda Judge Steven Kaus ruled that the first statute governs. He refused to order a California deposition for a Rhode Island witness, and instead ordered the deposition to take place within 75 miles of the defendant’s principal office in Rhode Island.

Judge Kaus relied principally on Toyota v. Motor Corporation v. Superior Court (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 1107. Most importantly, the court of appeal found that the Discovery Act of 1986 eliminated from section 2025.260, the phrase “Notwithstanding section 1989.” “By removing the words authorizing the trial court to override section 1989 the Legislature presumptively intended to withdraw that authority which had previously existed.”

Judge Kaus rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that Toyota did not apply because the deponent in this case was a PMQ, whereas witnesses in Toyota were named individually. “From a policy viewpoint, the differentiation between named corporate employees and PMQs, who, to coin a phrase, are people too, is form over substance.”

Judge Kaus’ decision is supported by an additional case he did not cite, I-Ca Enterprises, Inc. v. Palram Americas, Inc. (2015) 235 Cal.App.4th 257 in which the California Court of Appeal also affirmed that California superior courts have no power to compel production of defendant’s nonresident PMQ.

This decision is a win for defendants. If this decision becomes a trend, it will be interesting to see how plaintiff counsel will respond. One possibility is that they will be more strategic in whose PMQ to depose. Another could be a more strategic decision in what venue to file; or at best, the decision to dismiss some defendants whose witnesses, officers or not, reside out of state.

When the Shoe Is on the Other Foot: Deposition Time Limits

It was just about two years ago when the Los Angeles Times ran an article criticizing the asbestos defense bar for needlessly extending depositions of plaintiffs dying of mesothelioma.  Specific reference was made to the experience of John Johnson, whose counsel of record were Roger Worthington and Simona Farrise.  Now the office of Ms. Farrise finds itself in the uncomfortable position of attempting to persuade Judge Emilie H. Elias in Los Angeles that she must order another dying witness to appear for deposition to be questioned by attorneys from the Farrise firm.

In the case of Vinko Caric v. American Standard, et al. (LASC No. BC 527187), the Farrise firm represents Mr. Caric.  The firm’s attorneys want to pose questions to former co-worker Albert Jelenic.  But things get interesting when you learn that Mr. Jelenic is ill himself.  According to his attorney, none other than Raphael Metzger, he has leukemia and is dying.  The Metzger firm is not keen on having Mr. Jelenic deposed, causing the Farrise firm to go to Judge Elias seeking an order compelling Jelenic to appear for deposition questioning.

Defense counsel and Judge Elias had the unique opportunity to listen to counsel from Mr. Metzger’s office and counsel from Ms. Farrise’s office debate whether the dying witness can be compelled to appear for deposition questioning and, if so, under what limitations.  The issue has not yet been resolved, with the Metzger office ordered to update the court and parties periodically regarding the condition of Mr. Jelenic.  This may lead to additional briefing. We will follow the issue to see what positions the two dueling plaintiff firms argue.