This is the first in a series of posts on the "statutory repeal rule" as interpreted by the California Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal opinions holding that Prop. 64 applies retroactively to pending cases all rely on this so-called "rule." I'm going to address the California Supreme Court cases chronologically in an effort to establish that the so-called "rule" is merely an application of the general principle that new statutes apply prospectively only, absent a very clear indication of legislative (or electoral) intent to the contrary. If my workload permits, I'll put up one or two posts a week until I've addressed all the cases.
The first of the early California Supreme Court cases is Callet v. Alioto, 210 Cal. 65 (1930) (per curiam). Callet has been cited in most of the appellate opinions on Prop. 64 retroactivity, and it has become the de facto leading case. Ironically, this is a case in which the Supreme Court held that the "statutory repeal rule" did not apply.
Callet involved the right of injured "guests" to recover damages against negligent drivers. Under the Civil Code, a guest could recover for injuries resulting from the driver's ordinary negligence. Id. at 67 (citing Civ. Code §§1714, 2096). In 1929, the Legislature enacted a new statute limiting a driver's liability to cases of gross negligence, willful misconduct, or intoxication. Id. at 66-67 (citing Veh. Code §141¾). Callet addressed whether this new statute applied retroactively to pending cases. See id.
The first thing the Court did was invoke the ordinary rule that every statute operates prospectively unless a contrary intent is "clearly expressed." Id. at 67. Next, the Court cited the "statutory repeal" canon, noting the exception for rights of action that have accrued "by virtue of a statute codifying the common law." Id. at 68. Ultimately, the Court wound up not applying the "statutory repeal canon" because it found, after carefully analyzing common-law remedies for ordinary negligence, that the right of a guest to recover for injuries caused by ordinary negligence was part of the common law. Id. at 68-70.
Krause v. Rarity, 210 Cal. 644 (1930) (in bank) was decided just three months after Callet. The case involved the very same new statute, which limited a driver's liability to cases of gross negligence, willful misconduct, or intoxication. Factually, however, Krause was different in a key respect. The plaintiff in Krause was the estate of a decedent killed by the defendant's ordinary negligence, rather than an injured passenger who survived the wreck and then filed suit personally. Id. at 647.
A decedent's estate enjoyed no common-law right to recover for ordinary negligence at all. That right was purely statutory. Id. at 653 (citing Code Civ. Proc. §377). Accordingly, the defendant argued that the new statute repealed that right, and that the plaintiff could recover only if it could prove gross negligence, willful misconduct, or intoxication. Id. at 652.
In rejecting that argument, the Supreme Court relied on the legislative intent, and determined that in light of other statutory language, the legislature could not have intended to halt all pending actions by decedents' estates for ordinary negligence:
It is apparent that, if the new section had been enacted without the proviso, the rule contended for by the defendant Rarity would apply, the plaintiffs' cause of action would have been wiped out, and no recovery could be had on the judgment against said defendant, for the reason that said judgment has not become final. In such case the Legislature would have been unrestrained by constitutional barriers, and its intention, in the absence of a saving clause, would have been conclusively manifest. But the Legislature did not stop with the enactment of the portions of the statute which would have worked a repeal irrevocably, but added the provision which in effect continued the right of action on account of the death of the guest. In other words, there has not been a moment of time since the enactment of section 377 to the present time when an action would not lie on behalf of the heirs on account of the death of the guest.Id. at 654 (emphasis added). The Court also determined that "[t]here was no abolishment of the right or cause of action, but only a change in the proof required, not to maintain the action, but to permit a recovery." Id.
In several cases from the 1940s, the Supreme Court made it even clearer that the governing principle in any case of statutory interpretation—including a statutory repeal—is legislative intent. I'll talk about these cases in my next post in this series.
UPDATE: Click here for post #2 in the series.