February 2, 2009

Duffy v. Technicolor: Plaintiff Forfeited Punitive Damages By Not Seeking Them During First Phase of Trial

The California Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Three) issued this unpublished opinion last week, affirming a trial court's decision that prohibited a plaintiff from seeking punitive damages. In a nutshell, the plaintiff was barred from seeking punitive damages because he failed to make a timely request for punitive damages on any of the liability theories he presented to the jury.

The plaintiff's complaint asserted multiple theories of liability, but requested punitive damages only for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court, however, granted a nonsuit on that claim prior to trial. The case went to trial, bifurcated into a liability phase and a damages phase. During the liability phase, the plaintiff did not ask to amend his complaint to seek punitive damages on the other claims, nor did he ask the jury to make a finding that the defendant acted with malice, oppression, or fraud. The jury found for the plaintiff on liability.

During the damages phase, when the plaintiff began to assert a claim for punitive damages, the trial court asked the plaintiff how he could obtain punitive damages when the complaint did not seek punitive damages on any of the theories the jury had addressed in the liability phase. The plaintiff then sought leave to amend his complaint to request punitive damages on one of the claims the jury had addressed. The trial court denied the request as untimely.

The Court of Appeal affirmed, finding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion. The court noted that a belated amendment of the complaint would have prejudiced the defendant, who might have adopted a different strategy during the liability phase, and might have presented different evidence, if the defendant had known the plaintiff was seeking punitive damages.

The court's reasoning makes sense, but it seems like the court could have affirmed on another more straightforward ground, without even going into a prejudice analysis. The plaintiff, by failing to obtain a finding of malice, oppression, or fraud during the liability phase, forfeited its claim to punitive damages as a matter of law. See Westrec Marina Management Inc. v. Jardine Ins. Brokers Orange County, Inc. (2000) 85 Cal.App.4th 1042, 1050. Under Westrec, it really wouldn't matter whether the plaintiff had been allowed to amend his complaint or not. Without a finding of malice, oppression, or fraud, no punitive damages could be awarded.