February 18, 2015

California Court of Appeal affirms dismissal of punitive damages claims, clarifies rules for discovery of financial condition information (I-CA Enterprises v. Palram Americas)

This unpublished opinion has a lot of interesting stuff and is worth discussing at some length.

The plaintiff, a California business, contracted with the defendants, two unrelated Israeli manufacturers.  The contracts permitted the plaintiff to distribute the defendants' products in the U.S.  For a time, the plaintiff sold the products of one company to the other.  Eventually, the two companies started doing business directly with each other, cutting the plaintiff out of the loop.  The plaintiff sued both of them, claiming that each one intentionally interfered with the other's contract with the plaintiff.

The trial was bifurcated.  In the first phase, the jury decided that the two defendants were both liable for $225,000 in damages for intentional interference with contractual relations. 

The plaintiff wanted to proceed to a second phase of trial to seek punitive damages against both defendants.  But the plaintiff had no evidence regarding the financial condition of Defendant 1.  The plaintiff had asked Defendant 1 to turn over its financial condition before trial, but Defendant 1 had refused.  The plaintiff renewed its request after the conclusion of the first phase of trial, and Defendant 1 refused again.

When the plaintiff moved to compel Defendant 1 to turn over all documents relating to its finances, the trial court denied the motion on three grounds: (1) Defendant 1 was a foreign corporation and the court lacked the power to compel nonresidents to attend trial or produce documents; (2) the plaintiff's request failed to specify exactly what documents the plaintiff was seeking; and (3) the plaintiff had forfeited its right to conduct financial condition discovery by bringing its motion on the eve of the second phase of trial. The trial court then granted nonsuit in favor of Defendant 1 on the issue of punitive damages, because the plaintiff could not possibly satisfy its burden or presenting meaningful evidence of Defendant 1's financial condition.

The plaintiff proceeded with its punitive damages claim against Defendant 2 and the jury awarded $3 million.  The trial court, however, granted Defendant 2's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), finding that the plaintiff had presented no substantial evidence of malice, oppression, or fraud.

The plaintiff appealed, challenging the trial court's rulings as to both defendants. The Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Two) rejected the plaintiff's arguments.

Discovery of financial condition evidence

The Court of Appeal found no error in any of the trial court's reasons for denying the plaintiff's motion to compel Defendant 1 to produce its financial condition evidence.  The Court of Appeal held that the trial court had no power to compel a foreign defendant to produce its financial records.  More importantly, the court held that the trial court was within its discretion to deny the plaintiff's motion as untimely.  The court noted that Civil Code section 3295, subdivision (c), permits a plaintiff to bring a motion to obtain pretrial discovery of the defendant's financial condition evidence.  Because the plaintiff failed to exercise that right, the trial court was within its discretion to rule that the plaintiff's discovery request on the eve of the second phase of trial was too late.

This is a significant holding.  In our experience, plaintiffs often seek discovery of financial condition evidence after the first phase of trial, just as the plaintiff did here.  This is the first opinion we've seen holding that a trial court can properly deny such requests as untimely.

The Court of Appeal also ruled that the trial court did not err in excluding a Dun & Bradstreet report that the plaintiff had offered up as evidence of Defendant 1's financial condition evidence.  The report was hearsay. Although experts are ordinarily allowed to rely on inadmissible evidence in forming their opinions, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in holding that the plaintiff's expert could not testify about the Dun & Bradstreet report, because the jury would be likely to place too much emphasis on that hearsay document, in the absence of any admissible evidence regarding the defendant's finances.

Sufficiency of the evidence

The Court of Appeal also found no error in the trial court's granting of JNOV to Defendant 2.  Notably, the court agreed with the plaintiff that Defendant 2 had made intentional misrepresentation (viewing the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff).  But the court held that those misrepresentations could not support a punitive damages award because the plaintiff failed to show that it relied on them, or that they otherwise harmed the plaintiff:  "While there is a level of deceit that is evidence form [Defendant 2]'s actions . . . this pretense did no harm to [plaintiff], as required by Civil Code section 3294."