January 18, 2013

Unpublished opinion: an agent of a public entity can be liable for punitive damages

Public entities are immune from punitive damages in California under Government Code section 818. What about agents performing a public entity's functions?  This unpublished opinion says the statutory immunity doesn't extend to them.

Plaintiff Thomas Madeiros filed a tort claim with the City of Palo Alto.  Defendant George Hills Co. (GHC) was a third party-contractor responsible for administering claims against the city.  After GHC told Madeiros his claim was untimely, he sued GHC for false representation, seeking punitive damages.  The trial court granted GHC's motion to strike the punitive damages claim under section 818, under the theory that GHC was entitled to immunity as an agent performing the duties of a public entity.

The California Court of Appeal (Third Appellate District) reversed and reinstated the punitive damages claim. It held that a contractor for a public entity is not immune from punitive damages for its own tortious conduct. The case will go back to the trial court, and Medeiros will have the chance to prove that GHC acted with malice, oppression, or fraud in its processing of his claim.