Friday, July 20, 2007

Chosak v. Alameda County Medical Center (Cal. Ct. App. - July 20, 2007)

The judicial tendency to interpret a statute according to its (alleged) "plain" meaning has increased over the past decade or so. Particularly -- but by no means exclusively -- in federal courts. For those who prefer an alternative vision, this case is a good exemplar.

The underlying issue is a simple one. MICRA was designed to govern (and limit) medical malpractice claims. The text of the statute makes clear that it applies to claims against "health care providers," which are defined as anyone (or any thing) that's "licensed or certified pursuant to" various statutes. Seems pretty clear, right? So doctors, who are licensed to practice medicine, are covered.

But here's the rub. What about medical students? They aren't licensed. But they nonetheless treat patients. So when medical student Lynn Valdez allegedly injures someone during the course of an eye examination, is she covered by MICRA?

The plain language of the statute seems clearly to indicate that she's not. No license, no coverage. Period. So if you're a plain language type, that's the end of it.

But Justice Margulies comes out the other way. And I could explain in detail why -- and you're free to read the full opinion, which is a good one -- but, in truth, one need not. You can get a sense of where she's going on this one, even before she tell you her actual analysis, by how she sets it up. With language that clearly says: "Sure, the plain language is clear, but I think that wouldn't really make sense, so I'm going the other way." And that provides a pretty good encapsulation of how one might begin an opinion -- or brief -- in which you want the judge to ignore the seemingly crystal clear language of the statute. She says:

"Our overriding objective when interpreting a statute “is to determine the drafter’s intent.” (Alan v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc. (2007) 40 Cal.4th 894, 902.) In making that determination, we look first to the words of the statute because they “ ‘ “generally provide the most reliable indicator of legislative intent.” ’ ” (Bernard v. Foley (2006) 39 Cal.4th 794, 804.) “The rules for performing this task are well established. We begin by examining the statutory language, giving it a plain and commonsense meaning. [Citation.] We do not, however, consider the statutory language in isolation; rather, we look to the entire substance of the statutes in order to determine their scope and purposes. [Citation.] That is, we construe the words in question in context, keeping in mind the statutes’ nature and obvious purposes. [Citation.] We must harmonize the various parts of the enactments by considering them in the context of the statutory framework as a
whole.” (People v. Cole (2006) 38 Cal.4th 964, 975.)

If this analysis demonstrates that the statute’s language is clear and unambiguous, “it governs. [Citation.] Experience teaches, however, that unforeseen ambiguities can and do come to light despite the drafters’ considered efforts to avoid them.” (Alan v. American Honda Motor Co. Inc., supra, 40 Cal.4th at p. 902.) “If the statutory language permits more than one reasonable interpretation, courts may consider other aids, such as the statute’s purpose, legislative history, and public policy.” (Coalition of Concerned Communities, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2004) 34 Cal.4th 733, 737.) “[I]t is appropriate to consider ‘the consequences that will flow from a particular interpretation. [Citation.]’ [Citation.] Where more than one statutory construction is arguably possible, our ‘policy has long been to favor the construction that leads to the more reasonable result. [Citation.]’ [Citation.] . . . . Thus, our task is to select the construction that comports most closely with the Legislature’s apparent intent, with a view to promoting rather than defeating the statutes’ general purpose, and to avoid a construction that would lead to unreasonable, impractical, or arbitrary results.” (Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1272, 1291.) Ultimately, “[t]he legislative purpose will not besacrificed to a literal construction of any part of the statute.” (Giles v. Horn (2002) 100 Cal.App.4th 206, 220.)"

Once you read that, it's pretty clear which way she's coming out, huh?