Thursday, March 22, 2012

People v. Int'l Fid. Ins. Co. (Cal. Ct. App. - March 21, 2012)

I'm not someone who's unconcerned about doctrine.  I care about what the law says.  My view is that it's insufficient to analyze a case simply by saying:  "But that's unfair!"  Results assuredly matter.  But it also makes a difference how a court reaches that result.  Sometimes neutral principles create consequences that in a particular case seem inequitable, but that effect is nonetheless required for the stability of an advantageous principle.  I think of doctrine as something like rule utilitarianism.  Yeah, occasionally, we see a bad result.  But I'm willing to defend it because the underlying principle is a valid one.

Then there's this case.

It's not that I don't understand where Justice Dawson is coming from.  I do.  But, my goodness, this is just wrong.  Wrong.  Moreover, it's unnecessarily so.  This is not a case where we have to reach a bad result given larger principles.  We're just reaching a bad result.

Admittedly, in the scheme of things, we're not talking about something critical.  The case is not about someone's life.  Or liberty.  Or even distribution of assets amongst alleged tortfeasors and victims.  It's instead about a bail bond.  An insurance company posted a $65,000 bond, the bonded suspect didn't show up, and the bond was forfeited.  Is that okay?

It seems a straightforward case.  Of course it is.  With only one tiny little wrinkle.  When the defendant was brought to court, he was already out on bail on a different offense, so he already had an outstanding bond for $35,000.  The court wanted to set a $100,000 bond, but also wanted to allow the defendant to get credit for the existing $35,000 bond.  So the trial court said he could apply the existing $35,000 to the $100,000 that was required.  Which left $65,000.  So the defendant did precisely that, and got a bond for the remaining $65,000.

The problem is that, technically, the court couldn't "re-up" the existing $35,000 bond without notice to the first bonding company (since the defendant had not appeared), which didn't happen.  Which is fine.  If the first insurance company wanted its $35,000, I'd give it to 'em.  And that's not even necessary, since the court has already given it back to them.  They issued a bond for a party who showed up, even though he later skipped.  They get their money.

But the Court of Appeal says the second bonding company also is entitled to its $65,000 back.  With all due respect, that's just wrong.  Yes, the trial court "ordered" a $100,000 bond (with a $35,000 "credit") based upon a mistake about the validity of the credit.  But that's not dispositive.  The bonding party submitted a $65,000 bond to secure the defendant's appearance.  He didn't show.  End of story.  That a different bond, by a different party, might not be forfeited for lack of notice doesn't matter to this bond, which was noticed and which was indeed for this offense.  That someone else may get off doesn't matter for your liability, which is independent of the other bonding company.  You ponied up for this defendant on this offense.  If he does not show, you're on the hook.  Not for the entire $100,000, admittedly.  But definitely for the amount that you voluntarily put up.

The Court of Appeal says, well, the $100,000 bond was "void".  No it wasn't.  The total might have been wrong.  But not the $65,000.  A definite and enforceable promise was made with respect to that sum, and on certain conditions.  Those conditions didn't happen, which means the bond is forfeit.  That's all she wrote.

Can I imagine a situation in which the second bonding company would be prejudiced by the error sufficient to require a different result.  Probably.  Maybe when the two bonds were inextricably tied, an error in the first would in fact negate the second.  For example, if the first bond was for $2,000,000, and then a bonding company relied on the fact that the first company was headed by a successful bounty hunter who had a huge incentive to catch the defendant if he skipped decided on that basis to put up an additional $10,000 bond -- well, maybe there I'd hold that the invalidity of the first bond would negate the second, at least if the invalidity of the first bond meant the company never even tried to catch the defendant.  Maybe then there'd be some showing of prejudice.

But there's no evidence -- none, nada, zilch -- of anything like that here.  The second company here wrote the bond not because of the existing bond for a lower amount, but rather because they thought defendant wasn't a real flight risk.  They were wrong.  They should pay.  Not only were they not harmed by the first bond, but in truth, they probably benefited.  I know full well what would almost certainly have happened if the trial court hadn't made its mistake and had instead said that the first bond couldn't be a credit.  Defendant would have then gone (as he did) to the second company and instead of getting a $65,000 bond would have gotten one for $100,000.  And the bonding company would have been out an additional $35,000, with only an additional premium of $3500 to show for it.  Being better off to the tune of $30,000-plus does not, in my mind, constitute anything near the showing of prejudice required before I'd link the two separate bonds.

There are lots of amorphous statements in the 3500s portion of the Civil Code that have remained unchanged since they were passed in 1872, and are very rarely cited by parties.  But one seems especially relevant here.  Section 3533:  "The law disregards trifles."  As applied to the second bond, the problems with the first are indeed trifles.  Nothing here caused them harm.  So no relief.

It's sad that this one is so fact-specific and (relatively) unimportant that the chances for further review are low, and hence that we're at the end of the line.  Because this one's wrong.