March 18, 2015

Court of Appeal affirms trial court order that vacated $15 million punitive damages award against Donald Sterling

A few years ago we blogged about this case in which actress Robyn Cohen won a $17.3 million judgment against Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The plaintiff, who is best known for appearing with Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, claimed that a fire in her Sterling-owned apartment building caused her emotional distress and derailed her acting career. As noted in our prior post, the trial court ruled that one of the plaintiff's substantive claims was not supported by the evidence, and the court ordered a complete new trial on all the remaining claims because he could not determine the extent to which the unsupported claim influenced the jury.

Yesterday the California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Five) issued an unpublished opinion affirming the trial court's order.  The opinion illustrates how difficult it is to overturn a new trial order.  The Court of Appeal explained that the plaintiff had to show that the record provided no possible basis for granting a new trial.  She could not meet that burden because the jury's verdict did not reveal what conduct was the basis for the jury's punitive damages award.  The trial court properly ordered a complete new trial on all issues, rather than a retrial limited to punitive damages, because a second jury could not properly assess punitive damages without knowing what specific conduct the first jury thought supported liability, or what specific conduct the first jury thought was punishable.

Full disclosure: Horvitz & Levy represented Sterling in the post-trial motions and on appeal.