Defense attorneys involved in California multi-defendant product liability lawsuits are familiar with the challenge of properly balancing the need to preserve their clients’ defenses with the strategic importance of maintaining cooperation among co-defendants. In many cases, co-defendants’ interests are aligned, and they find the strategic benefits of cooperation outweigh any benefits of finger-pointing amongst one another. Indeed, co-defendant infighting is risky on several fronts—it can help the plaintiffs, increase defense costs, create animosity among possible business partners, and chill future cooperation with defendants who regularly blame their co-defendants. Inevitably, however, cases arise that involve a culpable co-defendant and a client wants to preserve its ability to attribute fault to the co-defendant at trial. This issue becomes complex and the specific language of California Code of Civil Procedure Section 437c(l) comes into play when the co-defendant seeks no-fault summary judgment.
Section 437c(l) operates to limit the extent to which defendants can attribute legal fault at trial to defendants who were dismissed through no-fault summary judgment. Specifically, Section 437c(l) provides that “if a motion for summary judgment is granted on the basis that the defendant was without fault, no other defendant during trial, over plaintiff’s objection, may attempt to attribute fault to, or comment on, the absence or involvement of the defendant who was granted the motion.” Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 437c(l). In other words, remaining defendants cannot assert the empty chair defense to attribute legal fault to co-defendants who obtained summary judgment.