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Law School Case Brief

Crowley v. Katleman - 8 Cal. 4th 666, 34 Cal. Rptr. 2d 386, 881 P.2d 1083 (1994)

Rule:

The primary right is simply the plaintiff's right to be free from the particular injury suffered. It must therefore be distinguished from the legal theory on which liability for that injury is premised: even where there are multiple legal theories upon which recovery might be predicated, one injury gives rise to only one claim for relief. The primary right must also be distinguished from the remedy sought: the violation of one primary right constitutes a single cause of action, though it may entitle the injured party to many forms of relief, and the relief is not to be confounded with the cause of action, one not being determinative of the other. 

Facts:

A decedent's wife contested the decedent's will, which left the bulk of the decedent's estate to his own attorney. The will contest asserted six separate grounds to set aside the will, but the action terminated in favor of the decedent's attorney, and the will was admitted to probate. The decedent's attorney then brought a malicious prosecution action against the wife and her attorneys, alleging that defendants had acted without probable cause in asserting five of the six grounds in the will contest. Defendants demurred generally to the complaint, asserting that probable cause existed for the sixth ground for contesting the will, thereby barring the malicious prosecution action. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend and entered judgment of dismissal. The appellate court reversed.

Issue:

Whether a malicious prosecution action lies for bringing an action charging multiple grounds of liability although only some, not all, of those grounds, were asserted with malice and without probable cause.

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of California affirmed the judgment of the appellate court. The court held that a malicious prosecution action lies for bringing an action charging multiple grounds of liability although only some, not all, of those grounds were asserted with malice and without probable cause. Therefore, the trial court erred in sustaining defendants' demurrer. The primary right theory, which allows a plaintiff to bring only one legal action for a defendant's violation of a primary right, does not operate to satisfy the probable cause element for each of multiple causes of action in the underlying lawsuit even if one cause of action is supported by probable cause. Further, allowing the malicious prosecution action when some, but not all, grounds in the underlying suit lacked probable cause is a sound rule. It is not incompatible with the fundamental interests the tort is designed to protect; even if one ground is supported by probable cause, the defendant is still burdened with defending against the invalid grounds. Also, the court's power to impose sanctions for frivolous conduct (Code Civ. Proc., § 128.5) is not intended to be a substitute for a malicious prosecution action. Further, apportioning damages between valid and invalid claims is not speculative, and allowing a malicious prosecution action in this circumstance is not incompatible with a party's freedom to allege inconsistent causes of action. Finally, when balancing the policy of untrammeled access to the courts against the policy of making injured parties whole, it is preferable to allow the malicious prosecution action in this circumstance.

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