December 4, 2009

Personalized Workout of La Jolla v. Ravet: Unpublished Opinion from San Diego Conflicts with Earlier Unpublished Opinion from San Diego

The jury in this malicious prosecution case awarded $74,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, for a ratio of 67.5 to one. Not surprisingly, the trial court reduced the punitive damages award (to $296,000, for a ratio of four to one). And not surprisingly, the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) affirmed that reduction in this unpublished opinion.

Both sides had appealed from the trial court's posttrial ruling. The defendant appealed, arguing that the plaintiff failed to provide evidence of his net worth. As we have seen, California punitive damages awards are often reversed on that basis. But not this time. The Court of Appeal concluded that the defendant waived his right to assert that argument, because he failed to comply with a court order requiring him to turn over various financial documents. The defendant prepared a "statement of total assets," in which he claimed that his total assets were approximately $50,000 and his total debts were approximately $1 million. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that the defendant's claims lacked credibility, because his own trial testimony referred to various substantial assets, such as a $4 million home, an expensive car, and beneficiary interests in trusts, none of which were disclosed on the defendant's statement. By failing to comply with a court order to produce documents relating to these assets, the defendant waived his right to complain about the absence of evidence of his net worth.

The plaintiff filed a cross-appeal, arguing that the trial court should have ordered a new trial instead of reducing the punitive damages award outright in a ruling on the defendant's JNOV motion. The Court of Appeal rejected that argument, citing its earlier opinion in Gober v. Ralph's Grocery, which held that a trial court has authority to grant a JNOV on the grounds that a punitive damages award is constitutionally excessive. Under Gober, a trial court can reduce the award to the constitutional maximum without ordering a new trial. The plaintiff tried to distinguish Gober on the ground that the defendant in Gober had waived its own right to a new trial. The Court of Appeal rejected that argument, saying that a defendant need not expressly waive its right to a new trial to take advantage of the Gober rule.

On the latter point, this opinion is in direct conflict with a decision earlier this year from the same court in Leeper-Johnson v. Prudential, which held that the Gober rule could only be applied if the defendant expressly waived its right to a new trial due excessive punitive damages. Apparently, Justice McIntyre (who wrote Leeper-Johnson) and Justice O'Rourke (who wrote this opinion) are not quite on the same page regarding this issue.

From my perspective, Justice O'Rourke's view makes a lot more sense. If a punitive damages award is unconstitutionally excessive, and the defendant asks the court to reduce the award to its constitutional maximum, the defendant is entitled to that relief, regardless of whether the defendant expressly waives its to a new trial.

In some cases involving excessive punitive damages, the defendant might have a right to a new trial if the defendant can prove a trial error, like an evidentiary or instructional error, that may have caused the jury to award a higher amount of punitive damages. But I see no reason why the plaintiff would ever have any right to a new trial as a result of an excessive punitive damages award, because the plaintiff could not possibly obtain any greater relief than the constitutional maximum. And I don't understand why a plaintiff would obtain a right to a new trial that would not otherwise exist, simply because the defendant did not expressly waive its own rights to a new trial.