Centennial Series: Long Beach & The Law
In honor of the Long Beach Bar Association’s Centennial, this is a series of historical notes on cases and courts in Long Beach through the decades.
September - The Nineties, Fin de Siecle
We’ve reached a point in time when doubtless most members of the Long Beach Bar Association have their own very clear memories. Yes, that was true for some members three or four decades before the nineties, and some newer members hadn’t yet launched their careers, but the decade is in all of our living memories. In fact, one minor event in the Long Beach legal scene was the author’s assignment as research attorney to the Long Beach courthouse, where I have remained ever since – so I can now discuss cases from personal memory.
The nineties saw major changes to Superior Court on the state and county wide scale. “Fast Track” was introduced with a goal of bringing most civil cases to disposition within two years and a significant number within one year of filing. Previously, cases could languish for years until one party or another filed and at-issue memorandum. The pace of litigation was set by the attorneys involved in the case with only the mandatory five-year deadline for bringing the case trial. As of 1997 Long Beach still operated under the master calendar system. Pre-trial litigation was in a law and motion department. When a case announced ready for trial, it was assigned to a judge who had no previous involvement managing or ruling in the litigation. That all changed in 1998. Newly filed cases were assigned to one judge for all purposes. That judge was responsible for managing the case to prompt resolution. In Long Beach, Supervising Judge Margaret Hay helmed the transition and became one of the first independent calendar Judges in Long Beach along with Judges Victor Barrera, Joseph DiLoreto, Richard Charvat, and James Wright. Although the new system required serious adaptation, and met with some resistance, it was largely successful. Only the Norwalk courthouse remained under the master calendar system.
Another major change was the merger of municipal and superior courts. It was controversial and not without problems. In Long Beach, both courts were already housed in the same building, but the absorption of former municipal court facilities and personnel was a formidable challenge for the court at large.
This series commenced with a look at the first mass tort litigation arising from a single incident – the “Empire Day Tragedy.” In the 1990s it was the “Consolidated Texaco Refinery Litigation.” To oversimplify the facts, a refinery accidentally spewed a cloud of industrialized emissions over a large area. There were approximately 10,000 plaintiffs, and this was not a class action. Liability was not an issue in terms of negligent exposure -- but oh the issues of damages. Many people had pre-existing respiratory illnesses which were allegedly exacerbated. Other claimed original injury with a multitude of alleged symptoms from runny noses to seizures and brain injury. Some claimed only property and clean-up damages. An army of litigators competed for representation. The precise number of plaintiffs was always uncertain because some victims signed up with three or four different firms. One attorney was charged with bringing people into the area to take deep breaths. Management of the case required the appointment of a retired California Supreme Court Justice and conferences were held in ballrooms in downtown LA hotels. It was a logistical challenge of the first order, but eventually a schedule for settlement was achieved. Things didn’t end there. “Spin-off” litigation ensued when some cases settled “behind the back” of the reputable firms associated for litigation by the attorneys who had signed up the clients. An entire storage room in Long Beach was dedicated to hold the files. The amount of paper generated could have supported a paper drive on its own.
The case of Peters v. Firemen’s Insurance Co. (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 808 was not initially a published decision. After the decision was featured on the front page of the Daily Journal, it was published by popular demand. The appeal arose from Judge James Wright’s granting of summary judgment to Defendant insurer. Both the case and the opposition to the summary judgment motion were peculiar, to say the least. The Plaintiff, Mr. Peters, had tendered defense of a case against him by his former girlfriend to his yacht insurer. The girlfriend’s complaint was that Mr. Peters had transmitted the herpes virus to her – she did not allege where this happened. The insurer declined defense and set a $1 reserve. Mr. Peters alleged her claim arose from the “use” of his yacht and was therefore a covered event. The insurer moved for summary judgment arguing there was no potential for coverage. As the appellate court noted: “Susan L.'s third party complaint alleges absolutely no facts giving rise to a potential for coverage. There is no mention of the yacht insured by respondent nor an allegation that Susan L. contracted the herpes virus while on a boat with appellant. Thus, by comparing the allegations of the complaint with the terms of appellant's yacht policy, there is no basis for claiming insurance coverage.” In opposing the motion, Mr. Peters declared that he used his “prestigious” vessel to seduce women. The opposing brief began (I kid you not): “plaintiff and his girlfriend planned and executed a sex-filled sailing adventure over the Thanksgiving weekend.” Judge Wright maintained a straight face at the hearing, but the Court of Appeals was more openly skeptical: “It is only through extrinsic evidence that the tenuous link between Susan L.'s herpes virus and appellant's boat becomes apparent. Appellant and Susan L. began their sexual relationship in September, but it was a fateful romantic boat voyage at Thanksgiving, appellant insists, that caused damage to Susan because it was only the purported setting--on appellant's prestigious watercraft--which led to the ‘sex-filled sailing adventure’ and oral copulation which resulted in the (speculative) transmission of the herpes virus.” The case has been cited 15 times in subsequent decisions regarding the potential (or lack thereof) for coverage. This was doubtless one of the strangest cases to come out of Long Beach. (I won’t name names, but Plaintiff’s attorney eventually resigned with charges pending arising from his self-representation in dissolution proceedings.)
In 1994 the Northridge earthquake damaged the already dilapidated Long Beach courthouse. Windows were out of plumb and the East side of the building (constructed after the original structure was completed) began to separate from the main building. Judge Brad Andrews began the long campaign for a new courthouse in Long Beach.
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The LBBA would like to extend a special thank you to Ken Freedman for his work in preparing this series.