March 13, 2010

Boothby v. Parker: $350,000 in Punitive Damages Affirmed, Despite Reduction of Compensatory Damages

There seems to be a growing split in the California Court of Appeals on the question of what should happen to a punitive damages award when a court slashes the compensatory damages award. In SEIU v. Colcord, the First Appellate District, Division One, ordered a reduction in the compensatory damages and then sent the case back to the trial court to reconsider the amount of the punitive damages in light of the reduction. But in McGee v. Tucoemas, both the trial court and the Court of Appeal refused to reevaluate the amount of punitive damages after a reduction of the punitive damages award.

In this unpublished opinion, the Second Appellate District, Division Two, affirms a $350,000 punitive damages award, even though the court reduced the compensatory damages from $725,000 to $325,000. The court relies on McGee but does not discuss SEIU or any other similar authority. (E.g., Las Palmas Associates v. Las Palmas Center Associates (1991) 235 Cal.App.3d 1220, 1254 [reducing compensatory damages and reducing punitive damages to preserve the ratio awarded by the jury].)

This is an issue that could eventually end up before the California Supreme Court.