December 31, 2008

Food Pro v. Farmers: California Court of Appeal Affirms Denial of Punitive Damages

The California Court of Appeal (Sixth District) issued this published opinion yesterday affirming a summary adjudication order that rejected the plaintiff's claim for punitive damages in an insurance bad faith case.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's ruling that the insurer had no duty to defend its insured from a third party lawsuit, but the Court of Appeal agreed with the insurer that the plaintiff failed to create a triable issue of fact on its entitlement to seek punitive damages.

The court emphasized that, under California law, punitive damages are not available unless the plaintiff demonstrates, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant engaged in despicable conduct demonstrating an extreme level of indifference to the plaintiff's rights. The court also noted that punitive damages are not available if the defendant's conduct is merely consistent with the hypothesis that the defendant acted despicably - - the evidence must be inconsistent with the hypothesis that the defendant simply made a mistake or an honest error in judgment.

The plaintiff in this case presented an expert declaration cataloging all of the insurer's bad acts. The Court of Appeal held, however, that all of those alleged acts were consistent with the theory that the insurer was negligent or overzealous, but none of them demonstrated conclusively that the insurer acted with an evil motive or an extreme indifference:

The asserted bad acts could be found to be negligent (an incomplete investigation and reliance on erroneous facts), factually and legally erroneous (an incorrect assumption regarding breadth of exclusion and failure to give proper weight to relevant facts), and even overzealous. However, Food Pro presented no evidence that “could be described as evil, criminal, recklessly indifferent to the rights of the insured, or with a vexatious intention to injure.” [Citation omitted.] Although we disagree with Farmers’ position regarding its duty to defend, Farmers relied upon two separate coverage opinions by two different law firms that arrived at the same conclusion regarding the lack of coverage. Moreover, the trial court agreed with Farmers, and the position cannot be deemed so unreasonable as to evidence malice, fraud, or gross negligence.
This opinion doesn't really add much to the body of California law regarding the standards for imposition of punitive damages. Nevertheless, my sense is that trial courts sometimes lose sight of how stringent those standards are, so it's nice to see the Court of Appeal issue this published opinion as a reminder.