Northern California Record

Assembly votes to make civil damages awards system more fair, end discrimination of minority groups

July 27, 2019

SACRAMENTO – On July 1, Senate Bill 41 was approved by the California State Assembly, promising to rid the civil damages awards system of discrimination. 

According to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Robert Hertzberg's website, SB41 was unanimously passed by the California State Assembly and will “prohibit the practice of granting historically marginalized groups lower damages in personal injury and wrongful death cases.”

Katie Hanzlik, press secretary for Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), referenced a number of cases documented by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in which minority groups were discriminated against in their damage amounts. 

“In some of the cases examined by Hertzberg's office, parties (were) kept anonymous due to privilege issues," Hanzlik said.

Discrepancies in damage awards to plaintiffs from minority groups were pointed out in a Silicon Valley Community Foundation post. 

“A 2011 case in San Luis Obispo involved a white girl who was profoundly injured," according to its blog post. "The economist reasoned that while the girl might have earned a college degree, she would still be likely to earn about 30 percent – or $900,000 – less than the almost $3 million a white male would be expected to make in his lifetime."

In another case, the community foundation wrote that a man's race affected the amount of damages awarded.

“In a 2013 case in Fresno involving the wrongful death of Hispanic construction worker, the economist took the $1.8 million he projected a white construction worker would earn over the rest of his career and knocked off 40 percent, or $700,000,” Silicon Valley Community Foundation noted in the blog post.

According to Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the education level of an individual from a minority group would also unfairly impact the awards they were paid out. 

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“An African-American woman who finishes medical school or law school would be expected – based on these widely-used tables -- to earn just under half of the $5.5 million a white male doctor or lawyer would earn over a lifetime,” according to Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

The bill, which was passed on July 1, was sponsored by the Consumer Attorneys of California and is headed to the Senate floor for concurrence before being sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“This practice perpetuates systemic inequity, and it tells companies that if you do bad things in poor communities with disadvantaged populations, your financial liability will be smaller," Hertzberg said in a press release.