June 23, 2010

Trattman v. Key: Punitive Damages Claim Reinstated Because Trial Court Fumbled Bifurcation Procedure

In this unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division 8) corrects an obvious error by the trial court.

The case involves Civil Code section 3295, which gives defendants the right to request a bifurcated trial on punitive damages. If a defendant invokes its rights under section 3295, the trial court must bifurcate the trial so that the jury does not hear any evidence of the defendant's financial condition (or any other evidence relating to the amount of punitive damages), until the trier of fact has already ruled in the plaintiff's favor on liability and ruled that the defendant acted with malice, oppression, or fraud, the prerequisites for awarding punitive damages under Civil Code section 3294.

The defendant in this case requested bifurcation under section 3295. The first phase went forward and the trial court, acting as the trier of fact, ruled in favor of the plaintiff on liability and found that the defendant had acted with malice, oppression, or fraud. But the court concluded that the plaintiff waived his right to punitive damages by failing to introduce evidence of the defendant's financial condition during the first phase.

I can't figure out what the trial court could have been thinking. Under section 3295, the plaintiff was prohibited from presenting any evidence of the defendant's financial condition during the first phase of trial. Clearly the plaintiff did not waive any rights by complying with the plain language of the statute. That's exactly what the Court of Appeal said, and reversed the case for a limited retrial on the punitive damages. (See our prior discussion of problems associated with limited retrials on punitive damages.)