February 27, 2009

McCoy v. Progressive West: Court of Appeal Affirms $100,000 Punitive Damages Award for Insurance Bad Faith

The California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division One) issued this published opinion affirming a $100,000 punitive damages award. The opinion was originally unpublished, but the court ordered publication yesterday, in reponse to a publication request submitted by the Consumer Attorneys of California.

The defendant's only challenge to the punitive damages award was that punitive damages are unavailable in breach of contract actions. The Court of Appeal rejecting that argument, citing previous cases that have allowed punitive damages for bad faith breach of an insurance contract.

The court did not address Civil Code section 3294, which provides that punitive damages are available only for "the breach of an obligation not arising from contract." That language suggests that punitive damages should not be available for tort claims (like insurance bad faith) that are based entirely on the breach of a contractual obligation. Although several Court of Appeal opinions have affirmed punitive damages awards in insurance bad faith actions, none of those opinions have reconciled that result with the language of the statute.

UPDATE: I didn't notice this the first time around, but the publication order only applies to certain portions of the opinion. The punitive damages discussion remains unpublished.