February 27, 2009

Pakravan v. Halajian: Unpublished Opinion Affirms Order Vacating $205,000 Punitive Damages Award

The California Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Seven) issued this unpublished opinion affirming a trial court order that wiped out a $205,000 punitive damages award.

The jury awarded no compensatory damages to the plaintiff, and then awarded $205,000 in punitive damages. The trial court granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the ground that a punitive damages award cannot stand without some award of compensatory damages.

The Court of Appeal affirmed, relying on the California Supreme Court's decision in Mother Cobb's Chicken v. Fox (1937) 10 Cal.2d 203, which held that "actual damages must be found as a predicate for exemplary damages." The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that Mother Cobb's Chicken has been undermined by subsequent Court of Appeal decisions. The court noted that most of the plaintiffs' authorities predate two recent Supreme Court decisions - - Kizer v. County of San Mateo and Potter v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. - - which reaffirmed the rule of Mother Cobb's Chicken. The court also rejected the plaintiffs' attempt to justify the punitive damages award based on "presumed" compensatory damages.

The plaintiffs in this case are certainly not the first to attack the continuing validity of the rule in Mother Cobb's Chicken. Because this is a recurring issue, the court probably should have published this opinion.