January 21, 2009

Stevens v. Vons: Unpublished Opinion Addresses Controversial Issue Regarding Punitive Damages Standard of Review

In our previous post we discussed this unpublished opinion from the California Court of Appeal, which affirmed the trial court's adoption of a 1-to-1 ratio of punitive-to-compensatory damages. The same opinion is notable for another reason: it addresses a standard of review issue that has divided California's intermediate appellate courts.

As we mentioned in our prior post, the Court of Appeal rejected the defendant's argument that the plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to support the imposition of punitive damages. In the process, the court ruled that the "clear and convincing evidence" standard, which governs punitive damages issues at the trial court, also applies on appeal, when a reviewing court examines the record to determine whether substantial evidence supports the imposition of punitive damages.

As we have noted in prior posts, California appellate courts have been all over the map on this issue, with some courts taking the position that the clear and convincing evidence standard applies only in the trial court and has no relevance on appeal. Last year the California Supreme Court granted review to resolve the split among the lower courts on this precise issue, but the Supreme Court later dismissed review after the parties settled. This case presents another vehicle for the Supreme Court to address that issue, although the chances of review are diminished somewhat by the fact that this is an unpublished opinion.