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Undocumented Immigrants Entitled to Full Recovery in California Personal Injury Claims
Friday, November 11, 2016

Can an undocumented immigrant obtain monetary recovery for a personal injury claim in California? Under a new law that was passed, courts will no longer be allowed to inquire about plaintiffs’ immigration statuses in personal injury cases. Previously, defendants were allowed to raise the immigration statuses of plaintiffs as a defense to the determination of lost earnings. The new law passed in February, 2016.

USCIS

The old law: Rodriguez v. Kline

For the past 30 years in California, plaintiffs who were not in the country legally had to compute their future earnings that were lost according to what they would have earned in their countries of origin. Often, this amount would be substantially less than the calculation would be for future lost earnings in the U.S. The rule came from the case of Rodriguez v. Kline, which was decided on appeal in 1986.

Factual background of the case

The plaintiff, Jesus Rodriguez, was seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident that happened on Oct. 23, 1979. Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in Rodriguez’s favor, awarding damages in the amount of $99,000. A portion of the damages was based on Rodriguez’s calculated amount for the earnings he might have made if he had not been injured in the accident. Rodriguez had entered the U.S. illegally and had lived and worked in the country for two decades prior to the accident. The defendant, Samuel Kline, appealed the amount of damages that was awarded to the plaintiff. He argued that since Rodriguez was in the country illegally, his future expected income amount should have been calculated according to the prevailing wages in Mexico rather than in the U.S.

Ruling by the Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals of California ruled for the defendant. The three-judge panel established a procedure that courts would have to take when a plaintiff’s immigration status was challenged before trial. A court would hold a pretrial hearing about the immigration status of a plaintiff whose status had been challenged by a defendant. At the hearing, the defendant would have the initial burden of providing evidence to the court that the plaintiff was potentially subject to deportation. The plaintiff would then have the burden of proving to the court that he or she had taken the necessary steps to remedy the condition rendering him or her subject to deportation.

The problem of the rule from Rodriguez v. Kline

While the ruling and how immigration status affects lost earnings calculations may seem fairly straightforward, a major problem existed because of the labyrinthine nature of the immigration laws. Immigration law has thousands of regulations, many of which are contradictory. This meant proving that the necessary steps had been taken to correct the deportable condition was almost impossible. Other issues included that some people have conditional residence statuses that could be removed. People who are lawful permanent residents may end up being deported for committing a variety of different offenses, and those who are in the country on the basis of marriage may be deported if their marriages are fraudulent, for example. This led to issues with plaintiffs who had lived in the U.S.

Because there are hundreds of reasons that might potentially lead to a person’s being deemed deportable even if he or she has a green card, some injured victims recovered far less than they otherwise would have simply because of the application of the rule handed down by the Rodriguez court.

The New Law on Undocumented Immigrant Personal Injury Claims in California

In 2016, the California legislature passed AB 2159, which adds section 351.2 to the California Evidence Code. The bill was signed into law by the governor and will go into effect in Feb. 2017. Under this new rule, a plaintiff’s immigration status is not admissible evidence at trial, and defendants may not seek discovery of the immigration statuses of the injured plaintiffs in personal injury matters. This means that lost income calculations are no longer allowed to take into account what the person would have earned if he or she had continued to live in his or her country of origin. Instead, the calculations will be based on what the injured victim might have earned in the U.S. but for his or her injuries that were caused in the accident.

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