February 25, 2008

SEIU v. Colcord—Punitive Damages Must Be Reconsidered After Compensatory Damages Are Reduced

In this published opinion, the California Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division One) reduced the amount of compensatory damages by $300,000 and then remanded the case for reconsideration of the punitive damages award in light of the reduced amount. That seems like a straightforward proposition. Juries are instructed that punitive damages must bear a reasonable relationship to the plaintiff's actual harm, so if a jury or trial court awards punitive damages based on an a false understanding of the plaintiff's actual harm, they should reconsider their award in light of the correct amount of compensatory damages. At the least, the punitive damages award should be reduced to preserve the original ratio of punitive to compensatory damages (assuming that ratio was not excessive). (See Las Palmas Associatesv. Las Palmas Center Associates (1991) 235 Cal.App.3d 1220, 1254 [reducing compensatory damages and reducing punitive damages to preserve the ratio awarded by the jury]; but see Stevens v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 1645, fn. 11 [dicta stating "there is no rule requiring preservation of the original ratio between punitive damages and compensatory damages"].)

But compare this decision to the Fifth Appellate District's opinion in McGee v. Tucoemas, in which the court refused to order a reconsideration (or reduction) of the punitive damages award after a reduction of the compensatory damages award.

Full disclosure: our firm (Horvitz & Levy) represents the defendant in McGee, in which a cert. petition is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court (on a different issue).