January 18, 2010

Year In Review: 2009 California Punitive Damages Decisions by the Numbers

I had hoped to get to this sooner, but better late than never. Here's a recap of last year's California appellate decisions involving punitive damages.

Total decisions, published and unpublished

By my count, the California appellate courts decided 42 cases in 2009 addressing punitive damages. That doesn't include cases in which a defendant appealed a punitive damages award but the court of appeal did not reach any punitive damages issues because the court reversed on other grounds. (E.g., it doesn't include cases like Griffin Dewatering.)

Five of those 42 cases were published. (Roby, Fariba, Superior Dispatch, Scott and Major)

Defendants' success rates in challenging punitive damages

There were 32 appeals in 2009 involving a defendant's challenge to an award of punitive damages. (As explained below, the other 10 cases involved plaintiffs' appeals.)

In 23 of those 32 cases, the defendant was successful in getting a punitive damages award vacated or reduced. That's an overall success rate of 72 percent for defendants. That includes not only cases in which the Court of Appeal vacated or reduced a punitive damages award, but also cases in which the trial court vacated or reduced a punitive damages award and the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's ruling.

In 11 of those 23 cases, the punitive damages were vacated entirely.

Looking exclusively at cases in which the trial court rejected the defendants' posttrial challenges but the defendants succeeded in getting some relief from the Court of Appeal, the defendants prevailed on appeal in 15 out of 24 cases (63 percent).

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

There were 7 cases 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). Two of those plaintiffs were successful in getting their punitive damages claim reinstated (34 percent).

There were 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.

Conclusions

This is the first year for which we have compiled statistics like this, so it's hard to know how these numbers compare to previous years. But looking just at this year's numbers, the high rate of success for defendants challenging punitive damages awards is striking. The average civil appeal has about a 22 percent chance of success based on the Judicial Council's stats report (see page 28), but civil appeals challenging punitive damages awards seem to fare much better. We plan to expand these statistics in the future, so we will see if this level of success remains constant or was simply a one-year anomaly based on a small sample size.