May 14, 2012

Unpublished opinion addresses standard of review issue that has divided California appellate courts (Romandia v. Engineered Polymer Solutions, Inc.)

California appellate courts disagree about whether the "clear and convincing" evidence standard, which normally applies to punitive damages determinations, should apply to judicial review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a punitive damages award.

Some courts have said yes.  (See, e.g. Shade Foods [“since the jury’s findings were subject to a heightened burden of proof, we must review the record in support of these findings in light of that burden . . . . we must inquire whether the record contains ‘substantial evidence to support a determination by clear and convincing evidence’”]; Hoch v. Allied Signal [“a nonsuit on the issue of punitive damages is proper when no reasonable jury could find the plaintiff’s evidence to be clear and convincing proof of malice”].)

Other courts have said no.  (E.g, Lopez v. Bimbo Bakeries [clear and convincing standard "does not alter our standard of review"].)

The California Supreme Court has said both yes and no, in different cases.  (Compare Converatorship of Wendland [discussing the clear and convincing evidence standard and stating, "[a]pplying that standard here, we ask whether the evidence . . . has that degree of clarity . . ."] with In re Marriage of Saslow [heightened standard exists "'for the edification of and guidance of the trial court,' not as a standard for appellate review"].)

This unpublished opinion from the Third Appellate District says no, and says that a trial court erred when it took the "clear and convincing" standard into account when granting JNOV for the defense. 

The requirement that Romandia meet that higher burden of proof . . . was relevant only to the jury's determination of the case. Once the jury decided that Romandia had proven by clear and convincing evidence that Valspar acted with oppression, fraud, or malice, that higher burden of proof “disappear[ed]” . . . and had no bearing on the trial court's review of the jury's decision on a motion for JNOV.
The court did not cite any of the authorities going the other way on this issue.

If the defendant asks the California Supreme Court to resolve this split, there's a decent chance the Supreme Court will grant review.  It granted review on this same issue a few years ago, but dismissed review when the parties settled that case.

Related posts:

Review Dismissed in Harvey v. Sybase

Predicting the Outcome in Harvey v. Sybase Based on California  Supreme Court Precedent

Harvey v. Sybase: California Supreme Court Grants Review In Case With Punitive  Damages Issue