June 13, 2013

Court of Appeal affirms order vacating $1.75 million punitive damages award and ordering new trial (Radford v. BAE Systems)

This unpublished opinion contains a very interesting discussion about the validity of some unusual posttrial procedures involving a punitive damages award.  Or at least it's very interesting if you are into the arcana of California posttrial and appellate procedure.  If that's not your thing, you might want to stop reading now.

The jury in this case awarded $420,000 in compensatory damages and $1.75 million in punitive damages.  Before judgment was entered, the defendant asked the trial court to rule that the punitive damages were constitutionally excessive.  The plaintiff objected, arguing that the court should enter judgment and the defendant should then raise the excessive damages through posttrial motions.

The trial court overruled the plaintiff's objections and decided the excessiveness issue before entering judgment.  The court ruled that the maximum constitutionally permissible punitive damages award is $420,000 on the facts of this case.

The court then entered judgment and the defendant filed a new trial motion and a JNOV motion.  The plaintiff argued that the trial court had no jurisdiction to grant either motion because the court had already considered the plaintiff's prejudgment motion, which was effectively a new trial motion.

The trial court overruled the plaintiff's objections again, and granted the defendant's new trial motion.  The court ruled that plaintiff's counsel committed misconduct, depriving the defendant of a fair trial.  The court granted a new trial conditioned on the plaintiff's acceptance of a remittitur of the amount of the compensatory and punitive damages to a total of less than $500,000.  The plaintiff accepted the remittitur.

After the trial court's jurisdiction to grant a new trial expired, the court issued its specification of reasons for granting a new trial.  In the specification of reasons, the court amended its earlier new trial order to eliminate the conditional part of the order and to eliminate the plaintiff's right to avoid a new trial by accepting a remittitur.

The plaintiff appealed and the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division Five) affirmed. It found nothing wrong with the judge deciding the issue of excessive punitive damages before entering judgment.  The Court of Appeal said the trial court's prejudgment ruling was effectively a de facto JNOV motion, not a de facto new trial motion, because the issue of constitutional excessiveness is a JNOV issue, not a new trial issue.

The plaintiff argued that even a de facto JNOV motion before judgment would be improper because by statute the trial court is supposed to hear and decide the JNOV motion at the same time as a new trial motion.  The Court of Appeal said that argument might have been valid if the plaintiff had raised it below, but since he didn’t, the argument was waived.

The Court of Appeal also found nothing nothing wrong with the court “amending” the new trial order in the specification of reasons and taking away the plaintiff's right to accept a remittitur.  The Court of Appeal said that the remittitur part of the original new trial order was void all along because trial courts are not permitted to order a remittitur when granting a new trial on grounds other than excessive damages.  Therefore, because the remittitur was never legally valid in the first place, the trial court did not err by revoking the remittitur in its specification of reasons.