September 1, 2010

McCall v. Safety Consultant Services: Wording of Verdict Form Precludes Punitive Damages

This unpublished opinion illustrates the importance of a carefully worded verdict form.

The plaintiff alleged she was sexually assaulted by Alfred Escobar, a group counselor. The plaintiff sought punitive damages from Escobar and his employer, Safety Consultant Services (SCS). The jury awarded no punitive damages against Escobar, but awarded $90,000 in punitive damages against SCS. The trial court, however, vacated the jury's punitive damages award and granted judgment in favor of SCS on that issue.

The plaintiff appealed and the California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division One) affirmed. The plaintiff argued that SCS could be held liable for punitive damages based on its own conduct, even if Escobar's conduct did not support punitive damages. But the Court of Appeal rejected this argument based on the wording of the verdict form that was submitted to the jury. The verdict form stated: “If you decide that defendant Alfred Escobar's conduct caused plaintiff Cheryl McCall harm, you must decide whether that conduct justifies an award of punitive damages against defendant Alfred Escobar and, if so, against defendant Safety Consultant Services, Inc.” Thus, the only theory presented to the jury was that SCS could be liable for punitive damages only if Escobar was liable for punitive damages. Because the jury awarded no punitive damages against Escobar, plaintiff could get no punitive damages from SCS.