May 28, 2008

Stahl v. Acuna: CA Court of Appeal Vacates Another Punitive Damages Award Because Plaintiff Failed to Present Evidence of the Defendant's Net Worth

In this unpublished decision, the California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) reversed two $40,000 punitive damages awards because the plaintiffs failed to present evidence of the defendants' financial condition. As we observed in a previous post, California has a unique requirement that a plaintiff must introduce evidence of the defendant's financial condition in order to recover punitive damages. The California Supreme Court announced this rule in 1991, but as we said in our prior post, "every year there are a few appellate decisions reversing a punitive damages award on this basis." Perhaps we underestimated, since this is already the second such decision this year.

The Stahl opinion also illustrates the operation of procedural forfeiture rules that may be surprising to those who are unfamiliar with this area of litigation. The plaintiffs argued that the defendants forfeited their objection to the lack of financial condition evidence by not raising that point in the trial court. The court rejected the plaintiff's forfeiture argument because this particular issue need not be raised in the trial court to preserve it for appeal. On the other hand, the court agreed with the defendants' argument that the plaintiffs had forfeited their counter-argument that their failure to present financial condition evidence was due to the defendant's noncompliance with subpoenas for the information. In other words, the defendants did not need to raise their argument in the trial court, but the plaintiffs needed to anticipate the argument and make their counter-arguments in the trial court.

While these forfeiture rules may seem counterintuitive at first, they flow logically from the rule that the plaintiff has the burden of introducing financial condition evidence, and the rule that a defendant can always challenge a plaintiff's failure to present substantial evidence, even if that issue wasn't raised below. On appeal, the plaintiff is not in a position to complain about the belated challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, since the plaintiff was on notice all along that it had to prove the elements of its claim. Nevertheless, this is an area of the law where the forfeiture rules can present a trap for the unwary plaintiff.