April 27, 2011

Petition for review asks Cal. Supreme Court to resolve split in authority regarding the proper treatment of a punitive damages award after reduction of compensatories

The defendant in Behr v. Redmond has filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court, asking the court to decide the following three issues:

1. When an appellate court substantially reduces a compensatory damages award, must it remand for a new trial on the corresponding punitive damages award—which the jury calibrated in part on the basis of the excessive compensatory award—or may it simply affirm the punitive award?
2. Does article I, section 16 of the California Constitution create a constitutional right to a jury trial on punitive damages?
3. Does a 1.75-to-i ratio of punitive to compensatory damages violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, where non-economic damages overwhelmingly predominate in the compensatory award?

As mentioned in prior posts, there is a split of Court of Appeal authority on the first question.  As the petition explains, the lower courts have taken five different approaches on this issue: (1) send the case back to the trial court to conduct a new trial on punitive damages, (2) reduce the punitive damages award to maintain the jury's original punitive-to-compensatory ratio, (3) remand to the trial court so that the trial court, not a jury, can decide whether to retry, reduce, or let stand the punitive damages award, (4) affirm the trial court's decision to leave the punitive damages award undisturbed where the trial court had itself ordered a reduction of compensatory damages and determined that no reduction of the punitive damages was necessary, and (5) affirm the punitive damages award so long as the Court of Appeal finds the award is not excessive.

There is no question in my mind that this is a recurring issue of statewide importance that merits Supreme Court review.  I'm going out on a limb to predict the Supreme Court will grant review.  (So far I'm two for two on such predictions; see here and here).

Related posts:

Behr v. Redmond: Court of Appeal publishes previously unpublished opinion, creates split of authority
Behr v. Redmond: $2.8M punitive award affirmed, despite reduction of compensatory damages from $4M to $1.6M