Estate of DeSela v. Prescott Unified School District (1/18/10)

We blogged the Court of Appeals opinion in this case here (and its slightly revised version here). The Supreme Court vacates that opinion; it reaches the same result but for a different reason.

DeSela was injured at school in November 2004. Her mother assigned to her the mother’s claim for her medical expenses. In December 2007 she filed suit for personal injury, having turned 18 the year before. The District argued that the claim for medical expenses was barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court agreed and dismissed it. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that although she had received the cause of action by assignment from her mother the statute of limitations applies as though it were her own, i.e., it abated until her majority.

The Supreme Court outflanks the assignment issue, holding that DeSela herself owned the cause of action. The assignment was therefore irrelevant. This overturns earlier cases to the contrary; the Court feels the old rule – that the parents own the claim for medical expenses –  outmoded and inconsistent with a child’s rights nowadays to make various other sorts of claims. The right to recover medical expenses, says the Court, belongs to both parent and child, although no double recovery may occur. The Court reverses the trial court and remands.

This has the advantage of not running roughshod over the law of assignments, as the Court of Appeals did. Instead, it runs roughshod over the idea that you’re supposed to raise issues in the courts below. The argument it adopts was not raised until the case was before the Supreme Court. It was raised by DeSela, not by the Petition for Review. The Court considers it for two reasons. First, the issue is “of great public importance or likely to recur.” How that is true here isn’t entirely clear since the precedent being overturned is from the 1940’s; that’s about how often it comes up. Second, the Court of Appeals would have been bound by the precedent anyway. But isn’t that always true? Doesn’t this create a rule de facto that an argument for change of Supreme Court precedent needn’t be made until the case is before that court? And why is it a good idea to decree that granting review, instead of limiting the issues to those on which it is granted, expands them?

No doubt the Court thinks it has changed the law in a good way. But the impulse for immediate gratification – either of the law or of a particular claimant – should rarely be indulged. The traditional and proper solution is to signal an argument’s future acceptance by discussing it, briefly but favorably, before announcing that it was untimely. That gets the law changed. permits (when someone eventually bothers to fight the issue) full review all the way along – which, when you’re  changing seventy-year-old precedent (just to posit a random example) is not a bad idea – and respects important procedural principles. The failure to do so suggests arbitrariness, if not whimsy.


(link to opinion)