January 14, 2008

Sumpter v. Matteson—California Court of Appeal reaffirms plaintiffs are never entitled to punitive damages as a matter of right

In this published opinion, the Second Appellate District, Division Three, rejected an argument that punitive damages must be assessed as a matter of law.

"[E]ven though there was abundant evidence that Matteson acted with a conscious disregard for the safety of others, it was the jury’s prerogative, after being duly instructed, to find that Matteson acted without malice and thereby decline to award punitive damages. We reiterate the principle that a plaintiff is never entitled to punitive damages as a matter of right, not even '"[u]pon the clearest proof of malice in fact.'" (Brewer v. Second Baptist Church (1948) 32 Cal.2d 791, 801.)"

This opinion does not blaze any new ground. California law has long held that plaintiffs are never entitled to punitive damages as a matter of right. Justice Traynor's opinion 1948 in Brewer made this point unmistakably clear, but the Court of Appeal evidently felt that enough time had passed since Brewer to warrant a reiteration of the principle in a published opinion.