September 10, 2009

Hur v. Lee: Employer Not Vicariously Liable for Punitive Damages

Many of the cases we blog about raise unresolved issues on the margins of the law. Not this one. Here, the trial court seems to have overlooked one of the most basic principles of punitive damages law.

California law has long provided that employers are not vicariously liable for punitive damages based on the acts of their employees. Punitive damages can be imposed against an employer only upon a finding that (1) an officer, director, or managing agent authorized or ratified the misconduct, or (2) the employer knowingly retained an unfit employee. (See Civil Code section 3294.)

The trial court in this case found that a corporation failed to supervise one of its agents, who committed fraud. The trial court made no findings that any officer or managing agent personally participated in, authorized, or ratified the fraud, or that the corporation employed the agent with knowledge of his unfitness. Nevertheless, the court awarded $100,000 in punitive damages against the corporation.

The Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) reversed the punitive damages in an unpublished opinion. The court correctly held that the trial court's findings were sufficient to find the corporation liable for compensatory damages (under a theory of respondeat superior) but not punitive damages. This seems like such a straightforward and obvious result, I'm amazed the issue didn't get resolved earlier in the litigation process.