Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Principal Life Ins. Co. v. Peterson (Cal. Ct. App. - Oct. 31, 2007)

We know that Scott Peterson shouldn't be entitled to the proceeds of the $250,000 life insurance policy held by his wife. Whom he killed. So the result in this case is hardly surprising.

What's interesting, however, is how much work it takes to get there. Especially given the -- somewhat questionable, in my view -- strategic choices made by the parties below.

To begin with, there was the decision made by counsel for the Estate of Laci Peterson to move for summary judgment on the fact that Peterson killed his wife based solely on the record of his criminal conviction. But, as Justice Ardaiz rightly explains, since that verdict's on appeal -- an appeal will take quite a while, I might add -- it's not a "final judgment" entitled to res judicata. And whether, for the same reason, it's even admissible evidence in the first place is a close question, though Justice Ardaiz ultimately holds that it is. Regardless, since there's ample evidence submitted by the prosecution in the criminal trial just waiting to be introduced, why not slap some or all of that stuff in as well? Seems pretty easy. And avoids the very real risk that the fact of the still-on-appeal criminal conviction won't be good enough to obtain summary judgment.

Then there was the decision by Matthew Geragos, who's representing Scott Peterson, to resist summary judgment solely through a declaration that says that the criminal conviction is on appeal. Sure, Scott didn't testify at trial, so there's perhaps reason for him to remain silent. Though a simple "I didn't do it" declaration would be enough to survive summary judgment, and then potentially seek a stay of the civil action during the pendency of the criminal appeal (or submit other evidence already admitted at trial to create a genuine issue of material fact, which ain't tough). It just seems fairly lame to resist summary judgment, and to spend money on an appeal as well, with such minimal support, especially when all the evidence at trial is just sitting there waiting to be produced -- and create a genuine issue of material fact.

No one's crying about the result, obviously. Still. I think the attorneys in this one could have done a bit better.