August 15, 2008

Monroe v. Singh: Unpublished Opinion Disallows Punitive Damages In Auto Accident Case

The California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, issued this unpublished opinion yesterday, affirming a trial court order that granted summary adjudication in favor of the defendant on the plaintiff's punitive damages claim.

The case involved a low speed auto accident. The defendant collided with one car at about 15 to 20 mph and then kept driving, hitting a second car a few seconds later. The driver and passenger of the second car sued and sought punitive damages, but the trial court granted the defendant's motion for summary adjudication on the punitives claim, finding there was no evidence that the defendant engaged in the sort of "despicable" conduct that could support punitive damages under California law.

The plaintiffs appealed, arguing as a matter of law that anyone involved in a hit-and-run accident is guilty of the sort of despicable conduct. The Court of Appeal disagreed. It emphasized that punitive damages are reserved for only the most egregious misconduct, and are rarely allowed in unintentional tort cases. The court concluded that a "garden-variety hit-and-run incident," where the defendant was not speeding and was not driving under the influence, could not possibly support a finding of despicable conduct.

Full disclosure: Horvitz & Levy represented the defendant on appeal.