New California Law Eliminates Discriminatory Damage Awards: Rodriguez v. Kline is No More

September 1, 2016

In 2013, it was estimated that over 2.6 million unauthorized or undocumented (1) immigrants lived in California, making up 10% of the state’s workforce. (2.) Undocumented immigrants contribute an estimated $130 billion to California’s GDP, an amount that is greater than the entire GDP of Nevada. (3.) Those workers pay taxes, buy homes, shop, drive, and participate in virtually all aspects of our economic, civic and cultural life. The Social Security Administration estimates that nearly $12 billion are paid into the Social Security system every year by unauthorized workers who will never receive any in benefits. (4.)40% of Californians are immigrants, authorized and unauthorized; nearly 75% live with at least one U.S. citizen. (5.) This population is also relatively stable, with 50% of unauthorized immigrants residing in the U.S. for more than 12.7 years. (6.) It is against this demographic and economic backdrop that for the last thirty years the California civil justice system sanctioned discrimination against unauthorized workers who suffered injuries caused by the negligence of others.

 

When a person is injured and cannot work, they suffer past and/or future wage loss and have the right to make a claim for compensatory damages in an amount equal to the loss. For example, if a union construction worker earning $100,000 a year in wages and benefits can no longer work due to injury, he or she can make a claim equal to their wage loss. Such claims can be worth millions.

 

Despite all the contributions to our economy and tax base, a California Court of Appeal decided in 1986 in the case of Rodriguez v. Kline that, with very limited exceptions, when an undocumented worker is injured, he or she may only make a claim for wage loss based on the currency of their country of origin. (7.) The effect of the Rodriguez decision has been devastating. The exchange rate for the Mexican peso has decreased from 55 pesos per U.S. dollar in 1986 to 18.2 pesos per dollar in 2016. Thus, if an unauthorized worker from Mexico was injured and was earning $100,000 a year, his or her claim would be reduced to approximately $5,000 for each year of wage loss, basically a nickel on the dollar.

 

The result? Workers and their families who lived, worked, contributed to their community, paid taxes, owned homes and educated their children here in California were faced with an economic calamity if they suffered injury or death. Many workers, given this prospect would forego their wage loss claim or give up on making any type of claim at all. Additionally, many attorneys would balk at taking on meritorious cases given their limited value.

 

To remedy this injustice, in August Governor Brown signed AB 2159, legislation that amended the evidence code to state:

 

Evidence Code Section 351.2. In a civil action for personal injury or wrongful death, evidence of a person’s immigration status shall not be admitted into evidence, nor shall discovery into a person’s immigration status be permitted.

 

Under AB 2159, unauthorized workers can bring claims for all their lost wages and with the knowledge their loss will receive the same treatment under the law as any other worker. Anyone who is injured can make a claim without fear that their immigration status will be part of a public record and or reduce the value of their claim. As a result, no longer is there a two-tier society when a worker is injured or killed on the job. AB 2159 brings justice to millions of workers and their families in California who have richly contributed to our state, our economy and our communities.

 

Notes

1. Unauthorized or undocumented is used interchangeable to describe persons who reside in California without legal status i.e. legal permanent residence or U.S. Citizenship. More often than not, the undocumented residents of California do not have a valid work permit.

2. What's at Stake for the State: Undocumented Californians, Immigration Reform, and Our Future Together, Manuel Pastor and Enrico Marcelli, Vanessa Carter and Jared Sanchez, May 2013, the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (USC’s CSII) and California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC).

3. Id.

4. ACTUARIAL NOTE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Number 151 April 2013 Office of the Chief Actuary Baltimore, Maryland, “EFFECTS OF UNAUTHORIZED IMMIGRATION ON THE ACTUARIAL STATUS OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY TRUST FUNDS” by Stephen Goss, Alice Wade, J. Patrick Skirvin, Michael Morris, K. Mark Bye, and Danielle Huston.

5. What's at Stake for the State: Undocumented Californians, Immigration Reform, and Our Future Together, Manuel Pastor and Enrico Marcelli, Vanessa Carter and Jared Sanchez, May 2013, the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (USC’s CSII) and California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC).

6. Id.

7. Rodriguez v. Kline (1986) 186 Cal. App. 3d 1146

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