December 11, 2008

Atallah v. Equilon: Court of Appeal Reinstates Punitive Damages Claim in Unpublished Opinion

The California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division 8), issued an unpublished opinion yesterday reinstating a claim for punitive damages. The jury in this case had ruled for the plaintiff on liability, awarded compensatory damages, and found that the defendant acted with malice, oppression, or fraud. But the trial court did not allow the punitive damages claim to go to the jury because the plaintiff failed to present evidence of the defendant's net worth. The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the trial court should have granted plaintiffs' counsel a continuance in order to marshal evidence regarding the defendant's financial condition.

The plaintiff in this case fared better than the plaintiffs in these opinions from earlier this year, all of which reversed a punitive damages award because the plaintiffs failed to present adequate evidence of the defendants' financial condition. The Court of Appeal was merciful to the plaintiff here because the trial court had, over the plaintiff's objection, excused a witness who could have testified to the defendant's financial condition. Although the Court of Appeal did not actually rule that the trial court erred in excusing the witness, the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court should have given plaintiff's counsel a short continuance to marshal his remaining evidence in light of that witnesses' unavailability.