December 20, 2011

Unpublished opinion prevents spouse from seeking punitive damages in family law proceeding (In re Marriage of Noghrestchi and Williams)

Ordinarily, a party to a California divorce proceeding cannot seek punitive damages from their future ex-spouse, because the California Family Code permits the parties to seek only certain specifically authorized remedies (which do not include punitive damages).  But this rule has an exception. It does not apply to disputes about transactions that occurred before the marriage.  Thus, if the parties agree to have a dispute about a pre-marital transaction resolved by the same judge who is handling the dissolution, that judge is empowered to award the full range of tort remedies, including punitive damages.

The question in this divorce case is whether the wife could take advantage of that exception.  The Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division Four) in this unpublished opinion says "no," because there was insufficient evidence that both parties agreed to submit the issue of punitive damages to the judge handling the dissolution.  The wife presented only weak evidence that she intended to submit that issue to the judge, and she presented no evidence that her husband agreed to put that issue on that table.