March 28, 2011

Holmes v. Burke: punitive damages affirmed against defendant with negative net worth

This blog has reported on many decisions in which the California Court of Appeal reversed a punitive damages award because the plaintiff failed to introduce meaningful evidence of the defendant's financial condition.  The appellant in this unpublished opinion from the Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, was hoping to add another decision to that list, but the court concluded that the plaintiff's evidence, although imperfect, was enough to constitute "meaningful" evidence.   

The interesting twist here is that the defendant had a negative net worth, but the court affirmed anyway.  The record showed that the defendant had $120,000 in net annual income, but had no significant assets (his home is underwater and proceeding to foreclosure) and a tax liability approaching $2 million.  Nevertheless, the court affirmed the punitive damages award because the defendant waived any argument that the punitive damages were excessive.  It seems that the defendant argued only that the record lacked meaningful financial condition evidence, but did not argue that the award was excessive in relation to the defendant's financial condition evidence. 

UPDATE:  Odds are good that, if the defendant had raised an excessiveness argument, the court would have reversed the punitive damages, based on what the same court did in another case last year.