April 27, 2009

Lopez v. Bimbo Bakeries: Court of Appeal Affirms $2 Milllion Punitive Damages Award

The California Court of Appeal (First District, Division Four) issued this unpublished opinion last week, affirming a $2 million punitive damages award in an employment case involving compensatory damages of $340,700 (a ratio of 5.87 to 1).

This punitive damages discussion goes into more detail than the typical unpublished opinion. From my perspective, these are the two most interesting aspects of the court's analysis:

1. The court stated that the clear and convincing evidence standard, which applies to punitive damages determinations, "does not alter our standard of review." That holding is directly contrary to published opinions (See, e.g., Shade Foods, Inc. v. Innovative Products Sales & Marketing, Inc. (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 847 [“since the jury’s findings were subject to a heightened burden of proof, [this court] must review the record . . . in light of that burden’”].) Admittedly, there are cases going both ways on this issue. But I'm a little disappointed to see the Court of Appeal deciding this issue in an unpublished opinion without even acknowledging the split of authority. The California Supreme Court granted review last year in Harvey v. Sybase to resolve the split on this issue, but the court later dismissed review after the parties settled. Presumably the Supreme Court still views this as a review-worthy issue and will take up another case on this subject, perhaps even this one.

2. The court concluded that the amount of the punitive damages award, and the ratio of nearly six-to-one, was not excessive under the Due Process Clause. In reaching that holding, the court did not mention the U.S. Supreme Court's statement in State Farm v. Campbell that the ratio should be low, perhaps only one-to-one, in cases involving substantial compensatory damages. Other California appellate panels (and courts in other jurisdictions) have followed the Supreme Court's direction on that point and have reduced punitive damages awards down to a single-digit level. (See my Washington Legal Foundation paper discussing a possible nationwide trend on this issue.) The $340,700 compensatory damages award in this case is well in excess of the amount that other courts have found to be "substantial" within the meaning of Campbell. Perhaps the Court of Appeal in this case thought the defendant's conduct was so reprehensible that it justified an award well above the 1-to-1 ratio, notwithstanding the Supreme Court's reasoning in Campbell. If so, it would have been nice for the court to acknowledge this aspect of Campbell and explain why it decided not to follow the Supreme Court's reasoning.

The opinion also addresses other issues, such as the sufficiency of the evidence to satisfy California's "managing agent" requirement, and the relevance of the defendant's $826 million net worth. I'm not going to make this blog post any longer by summarizing the court's holdings on those points, but the opinion is definitely worth a read, especially for anyone handling a punitive damages appeal before the First District, Division Four.