California Civil Suits Against Drug Dealers

A lot of people probably know that you can sue for money if you’re the victim of an act. For example, someone sells a defective product that injures you, a doctor makes a mistake that causes you pain and suffering, etc. As a category, these offenses that victims can sue for money on are called “torts”. There are some very common torts (e.g. negligence, false imprisonment, etc) that get taught in pretty much every law school.

Then there are some unusual torts, like the subject of this post: suing drug dealers for the damage they cause in marketing, distributing, and selling drugs. In California, this is under the Drug Dealer Liability Act (DDLA) (California Health and Safety Code section 11700). Other states in the US may allow suits like this as well. As always, check your state’s laws or consult an attorney in your area to see what is prudent for your particular situation.

I’m going to abbreviate “Health and Safety Code” as “H&SC” below.

Basic Elements of a DDLA suit:
Most tort offenses have a set number of specific criteria that the plaintiff has to satisfy in order to win. For a DDLA suit, the elements are:

Who Can Sue Under DDLA?
The general requirement for a plaintiff under the DDLA is that they have to have suffered some sort of injury due to the defendant┬áproviding an illegal controlled substance. This could include the drug user’s:

Under H&SC section 11706, former drug users can also sue under the DDLA, provided they (a) be free of illegal drug use for at least 30 days prior to filing, (b) stay clean during the entirety of the case, and (c) give law enforcement all information they know relating to the source of their drugs.

Who Is A Defendant Under DDLA?
There are 2 categories of DDLA defendants: (1) anyone who sold, administered, or furnished drugs to an individual drug user, (H&SC section 11705(b)(1))and (2) under certain conditions, anyone who knowingly participated in the marketing of illegal drugs (H&SC section 11705(b)(2)). Those in (1) can be sued in general while those in (2) can be sued if:

  • the drug user’s illegal activity and the defendant’s place of business cover the same geographic area;
  • the defendant’s marketing activities is for the same controlled substance taken by the plaintiff drug user;
  • the defendant’s marketing activities were in the same time period as the plaintiff’s use of the controlled substance;
  • defendant has a prior conviction relating to the same controlled substance the plaintiff was using and said conviction is out of the same county where the plaintiff was using.

“Marketing” in this context is defined really broadly to include manufacturing, transportation, distribution, and selling. (H&SC section 11703(g)).

Miscellaneous
The stuff in this section isn’t truly “miscellaneous” as it’s pretty important, but:

  • the Statute of Limitations for a DDLA suit is one year from the time the defendant furnishes the particular illegal controlled substance (H&SC section 11714(a)). There is no tolling for minors. The claim accrues when plaintiff knows (1) what harm has been caused, and (2) the harm is caused by the illegal controlled substance provided by defendant. (H&SC section 11714(a)).
  • The damages that can be recovered can include compensatory damages (e.g. treatment costs, etc) as well as punitive damages, but only if the plaintiff is not the drug user themselves. (H&SC section 11706(c)).

What should be of particular interest to plaintiff’s (and to plaintiff’s lawyers), is that the DDLA makes the defendant liable for the plaintiff’s attorneys fees and costs of suit as well. (H&SC section 11706(c) and 11705(d)(4)).

As always, I hope that helped. As this post is intended purely to be a superficial introduction to the DDLA, please consult a lawyer for your own unique situation. I have cited to and linked various H&SC code sections above to get you started.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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