December 16, 2011

Unpublished opinion affirms punitive damages award against defendant with negative net worth (Liu v. Wong)

As readers of this blog are aware, California law requires courts to reduce punitive damages awards that are disproportionate to the defendant's financial condition.  Consistent with this principle, California courts have vacated punitive damages awards entirely when the defendant had a negative net worth.  (See the cases discussed here, here, and here.)  But there has been some inconsistency on this point.  Some courts have affirmed punitive damages awards even when the defendant had a negative net worth.  (See the cases discussed here and here.)

This unpublished opinion from the California Court of Appeal (First District, Division Two) falls into the latter category, affirming a $410,000 punitive damages award despite evidence that the defendant had a negative net worth.  The court concluded that the award was not excessive because the defendant had borrowed substantial sums of money secured by loans on property he owned.  I don't see how the defendant's heavy borrowing shows that he can afford to pay punitive damages without suffering financial ruin (which is the whole point of requiring taking the defendant's financial condition into account).  Perhaps the court just didn't believe that he really had a negative net worth.