Too soon?

An interesting case recently came out of California relating to prematurely commencing litigation.

Sherri_Rasmussen
Sherri Rasmussen (Image credit)

On 24 February 1986 Sherri Rasmussen was murdered.  The offender (Stephanie Lazarus) was not identified until 2009. Astonishingly, she was by then a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Lazarus was convicted of murder on 8 March 2012.

On 26 July 2010 Mrs Rasmussen’s parents issued proceedings against Lazarus in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County.  Lazarus raised a defence that their claim had been commenced too early (that is, before her conviction) (a “plea in abatement”).  California’s Code of Civil Procedure §340.3 states that

in any action for damages against a defendant based upon the defendant’s commission of a felony offense for which the defendant has been convicted, the time for commencement of the action shall be within one year after judgment is pronounced.

Judge White rejected Lazarus’ argument and ordered her to pay $10,000,000.00 compensation.  Lazarus appealed.

The California Court of Appeal agreed with the trial judge.  The Court found (first) that a plea in abatement must be pleaded promptly by the defendant or it is taken to be waived.  Here Lazarus could have raised the argument when she was served with proceedings in 2011.  She did not do so until 2016.

The Court also found that by the time Lazarus raised the point, the defect identified (lack of a criminal conviction) no longer existed.  The trial court was correct to ignore the issue.

Finally, as a matter of equity the trial court was right to disregard the defence.  If the judgement in favour of the Rasmussens were overturned, they would be time-barred from beginning the proceedings again.  This was not acceptable:

A defendant cannot untimely raise prematurity and then hide behind a statute of limitations which ran while the defendant did nothing to assert the plea.

The decision of the trial court was affirmed.  On 11 April 2018 the Supreme Court of California declined to hear a further appeal.

Rasmussen v Lazarus (2018) California Court of Appeal, 8 January 2018.