March 27, 2011

Martinucci v. So. Cal. Permanente: Trial court properly vacated a $7.5 million punitive damages award

This unpublished opinion from the California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Two) affirms a trial court order tossing out a $7.5 million punitive damages award in an employment case. 

The plaintiff, a doctor of radiology, claimed he was fired from a Kaiser medical facility because he insisted on the highest standards of patient care, causing resentment among other personnel and staff.  He sued for retaliatory termination in violation of public policy and various other claims.  After a three-week trial, a jury awarded $3.9 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages.

The defendant moved for a new trial and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV).  The trial court granted a complete new trial on various grounds, including instructional error.  The court also took the issue of punitive damages off the table for the retrial by granting a JNOV on that issue.  The court found that the plaintiff failed to meet his burden of proving malice, oppression, or fraud, the prerequisites to punitive damages under Civil Code section 3294.

The Court of Appeal affirmed both the new trial order and the JNOV on punitive damages, agreeing that the plaintiff presented no evidence of malice.  The court also rejected the plaintiff's argument that his allegations of retaliatory discharge amounted to "per se malice and/or oppression." The court said he waived that argument by not raising it when the trial court asked him to identify all evidence of malice, fraud or oppression.  Instead of finding waiver, the court could have just said that "per se malice and/or oppression" does not exist under California law.