July 1, 2009

Punitive Damages and Default Judgments

In California, a plaintiff cannot obtain punitive damages as part of a default judgment in a personal injury or wrongful death case unless the plaintiff first serves a statement of damages, specifying the amount of punitive damages requested. (See California Code of Civil Procedure 425.11, subd. (c).)

This rule came in to play in two unpublished decisions issued this week by the California Court of Appeal. In Anson v. St. Michael's Episcopal Church, the plaintiff failed to serve a statement of damages, and the Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, held that he was not entitled to recover punitive damages by default. By contrast, in Cantu v. Thomas, the plaintiff did serve a statement of damages requesting a specific amount of punitive damages, and the Fourth Appellate District, Division Two, affirmed the $20,000 in punitive damages he obtained by default.

UPDATE: On June 30, the Second Appellate District, Division Eight, issued another unpublished opinion on this issue. In Daniel v. Lathen, the court upheld the portion of a trial court's order that vacated a $320,000 punitive damages award obtained by default. The plaintiff was not entitled to punitive damages because he failed to serve a statement of damages before obtaining the default.