May 7, 2009

Plaintiff Files Cert. Petition in Stevens v. Vons

Back in January we had two posts about the California Court of Appeal's unpublished opinion in Stevens v. Vons, in which the court affirmed a trial court ruling that reduced a $16.7 million punitive damages award down to $1.2 million. The plaintiff, after an unsuccessful petition for review to the California Supreme Court, has now filed a cert. petition with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The petition contends that the Court of Appeal applied the wrong standard of review. The petition says the Court of Appeal mistakenly followed the California Supreme Court's 1978 opinion in Neal v. Farmers, which held that a trial court's decision to reduce a punitive damages award under California law is reviewed for abuse of discretion. The petition contends that the Court of Appeal should have followed the California Supreme Court's more recent opinion in Simon v. San Paolo, which held that a trial court's decision to reduce a punitive damages award on due process grounds is reviewed de novo. (Simon was merely restating the U.S. Supreme Court's holding in Cooper v. Leatherman.) The petition contends that the Court of Appeal would have permitted a larger punitive damages award if it had analyzed the punitive damages award solely on due process grounds, and not under state law.

I would be shocked if the Supreme Court grants this petition. The plaintiff is essentially arguing that state courts are no longer free to reduce punitive damages awards under state law if the awards are not excessive under the Due Process Clause. Nothing in the Supreme Court's punitive damages jurisprudence suggests that the Court intended to prevent state courts from reducing punitive damages awards under state law.