February 26, 2015
The Supreme Court filed two opinions this morning, one a review of a Court of Appeal writ decision and one a decision of an automatic direct appeal of a judgment of death.
In State of California v. Superior Court, the court held that the statutes establishing the Freeway Service Patrol, under which motorists receive free emergency roadside assistance and which is partly administered by the California Highway Patrol, “are incompatible with a special employment relationship between CHP and tow truck drivers.” The plaintiffs in the case relied on the statutes in an attempt to hold CHP vicariously liable for an FSP tow truck driver’s negligence in an accident. In rejecting the plaintiffs’ reliance on the statutes, the court agreed with the Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division Three, but it nonetheless reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision that had directed entry of summary judgment. The court’s opinion, authored by Justice Carol Corrigan, concluded that, although the FSP statutes do not per se establish vicarious liability against the CHP, there remains “the possibility that CHP might act as a special employer if it takes on responsibilities beyond those outlined in the FSP statutes” when the CHP “make[s] its own agreements with tow service providers.” Justice Kathryn Werdegar concurred, but disagrees with the majority’s conclusions about “whether the Legislature had in mind potential exposure to vicarious liability under common law employment principles when it established the freeway service patrol program.”
The court affirmed the death judgment in People v. Johnson, but it does so in a 5-2 decision. The point of disagreement is about the conviction for, and special circumstances finding of, carjacking when the victim was killed during a home invasion robbery. The majority, in an opinion authored by Justice Ming Chin, affirms, but Justice Werdegar’s dissent — signed by Justice Goodwin Liu — disagrees, concluding that the carjacking statute’s “language and history” don’t support the conviction or finding. The dissenters state, “The proposition that a person baking in her kitchen can be carjacked should prompt quizzical looks.” The majority dismisses the objections, holding that, although it “might not be a classic carjacking,” the defendant’s conduct satisfied “all of the statutory elements of carjacking.” It also found unconvincing the dissenters’ legislative history argument: “Committee reports, often drafted by unelected staffers, cannot alter a statute’s plain language.”
The Johnson majority included now-retired Justice Marvin Baxter and a pro tem Court of Appeal justice. New Justices Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger could cause a rehearing if they vote with Justices Werdegar and Liu, but we’re hesitant to issue another rehearing alert on this case. It is unclear from the opinion whether a reversal of the carjacking conviction and special circumstances finding would necessarily require a reversal of the death judgment. There are other special circumstances findings that no justice voted to reverse and the majority did not address the defendant’s arguments “concerning the consequences of any insufficiency in the evidence” of carjacking.