February 12, 2015

California Court of Appeal vacates punitive damages awards of $3 million and $275,000 due to insufficient evidence (Wilson v. So. Cal. Edison; Union Central Cold Storage v. RDM)

The California Court of Appeal issued two opinions this week vacating punitive damages awards based on insufficient evidence.

In the first case, the Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Seven) issued an unpublished opinion vacating a $275,000 punitive damages award because the plaintiff failed to present meaningful evidence of the defendant's financial condition. We have noted before that a surprising number of punitive damages awards are vacated on that basis every year.  Often a plaintiff will present evidence of the defendant's assets or income, but fail to present any evidence of liabilities or expenses.  Amazingly, the plaintiff in this case "presented no relevant evidence" whatsoever, according to the court.    

In the second case, the Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Four) issued a published opinion vacating a $3 million punitive damages award because the plaintiff failed to prove that the defendant engaged in punishable conduct. The plaintiff claimed that Southern California Edison failed to maintain an electrical substation, causing stray electrical currents to enter her home.  Plaintiff presented evidence that Edison's management was aware of the problem of stray electricity at the plaintiff's property.  But their awareness arose only in the context of the company's efforts to mitigate the problem to ensure that there was no danger to anyone on the property.  Thus, plaintiff failed to prove that the corporate management acted with malice, oppression, or fraud as Civil Code section 3294 requires.