September 25, 2013

Court of Appeal affirms punitive damages award, rejects defendant’s complaint about modified jury instructions (Sacramento Singh Society v. Tatla)

I have doubts about whether this opinion is correct.  The opinion is only partially published, and the punitive damages analysis appears in the unpublished portion.

 The plaintiff in this action, a nonprofit religious corporation, sued a group of defendants for slander of title and obtained a compensatory damages award of $359,021.22.  The jury also awarded punitive damages in various amounts against the different defendants, ranging from $60,000 to $167,500.  The opinion does not reveal the total amount of punitive damages.

 On appeal, the defendants complained about the trial court’s modifications to the standard CACI jury instructions.  Among other things, the trial court instructed the jury that the defendants could be liable for punitive damages if they acted with malice, or conspired to engage in malice.

The California Court of Appeal (Third Appellate District) rejected the defendants’ challenge to those modifications.  First, the court said defendants waived their objections because, although they objected to the instruction in an unreported conference with the judge, they did not later specify the precise nature of their objection when they placed the objection on the record, beyond noting that they disagreed with the substance of the instruction.  The court found that was inadequate to preserve the issue:

It was, of course, incumbent on defendants to place on the record their objection to the instruction in order to preserve it for appeal. Although it is clear defendants had some objection to the instruction, we are left to guess what that might have been.
That aspect of the court’s opinion seems obviously wrong. The California Code of Civil Procedure provides that a party need not make any objection to a jury instruction in the trial court in order to challenge the validity of that instruction on appeal. All instructions are deemed objected to as a matter of law. (See CCP 647.) So there appears to be no basis for finding a waiver here.

The court went on to say that, waiver aside, the defendants’ challenge to the instruction fails on the merits because there is nothing wrong with permitting punitive damages for conspiracy to commit malice.  That holding seems pretty shaky too, since the instruction did not require that the defendant be found to have acted with malice in performing any of the acts that effected a conspiracy. Permitting punitive damages against a defendant who merely may have non-maliciously conspired with others who acted with malice is akin to imposing vicarious liability for punitive damages. The Court of Appeal admits as much: “the fact that a given defendant conspired with the others to harm the Society but then left it to the others to do the dirty work and put the plan into action is hardly a reason to deny an award of punitive damages against that defendant.” What about the Supreme Court case law prohibiting vicarious liability for punitive damages? And what about Civil Code section 3294, which authorizes punitive damages only for a defendant who is actually guilty of malice, oppression, or fraud, and says nothing about allowing punitive damages for conspiring with someone else who is guilty of malice?