July 29, 2009

Some Stats On Punitive Damages in the California Court of Appeal

Since we began this blog in January 2008, we've tracked every California Court of Appeal opinion on the topic of punitive damages, published and unpublished. As a result, we've collected a fair amount of data. I'm starting to sift through some of that data to see what it might tell us about how our appellate courts deal with punitive damages. I've started by looking just at the 2009 California punitive damages decisions. When I have time, I'll update these figures with the cases from 2008.

Total decisions, published and unpublished

There have been 26 California Court of Appeal decisions in 2009 addressing punitive damages, not counting cases where punitive damages were awarded but the court of appeal's opinion did not address punitive damages issues (e.g., not including Blanks v. Seyfarth Shaw, in which the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial on all issues, resulting in the reversal of a $15 million punitive damages award). Only 2 of the punitive damages opinions in 2009 have been published. (Scott and Major).

Defendants' success rates in challenging punitive damages

To date, there have been 18 appeals in 2009 involving a defendant's challenge to an award of punitive damages. (As explained below, the other cases involve defense verdicts or punitive damages claims that were dismissed before trial.)

In 13 of those 18 cases, the defendant was successful in getting a punitive damages award vacated or reduced, either by the trial court or the court of appeal. That's an overall success rate of 72 percent for defendants.

In 6 of those 18 cases (33 percent), the punitive damages were vacated entirely.

Looking exclusively at cases in which the trial court rejected the defendants' posttrial challenges, the defendants succeeded in getting some relief from the Court of Appeal (either a reduction or a completely reversal) in 8 out of 13 cases (62 percent).

Plaintiffs' success rates in appealing from trial court rulings for the defense

There have been 4 cases so far in 2009 in which a plaintiff appealed from a trial court decision dismissing a punitive damages claim (by nonsuit, directed verdict, or a motion to strike). Only one of those plaintiffs were successful (25 percent).

There have been 3 cases in which plaintiffs appealed from a decision not to award punitive damages (two jury trials and one bench trial). All 3 of those appeals were unsuccessful.


These sample sizes are too small to support any conclusions. And even when we have more data, it is important to keep in mind that these stats are based exclusively on appellate decisions, and do not include cases in which a trial court made a posttrial ruling that was never appealed. So you have to take all these numbers with a grain of salt.

Nevertheless, the one thing that jumps out at me from these stats is the high success rates for defendants. It will be interesting to see whether that is just a 2009 anomaly, or whether those percentages hold true when we add in the stats from the 2008 cases.