July 15, 2015

Court of Appeal reverses $32.5 million punitive damages award due to lack of financial condition evidence (Soto v. Borg-Warner)

Over the years we have reported on a lot of California appellate opinions that reversed a punitive damages award because the plaintiff failed to present meaningful evidence of the defendant’s financial condition.  This unpublished opinion is especially notable, and not just because it involves an enormous punitive damages award.  The opinion contains a road map for how plaintiffs can conduct discovery of the defendant’s finances without risking the sort of forfeiture that occurred here.

Readers of this blog are well aware that in California, plaintiffs have the burden of presenting evidence of the defendant’s financial condition as a prerequisite to recovering punitive damages.  But plaintiffs cannot seek pretrial discovery of the defendant’s finances without first obtaining a court order.  To obtain such an order, plaintiffs must demonstrate a substantial probability of prevailing on their punitive damages claim.  (Civil Code section 3295(c).)

Many plaintiffs choose not to seek a court order.  Instead, they wait until the jury makes a finding that the defendant acted with malice, and then then ask the defendant to immediately produce its financial condition information.

One problem with that approach is that the defendant, without knowing in advance what information the plaintiffs are seeking, may not be in a position to immediately produce the information that the plaintiffs are seeking.  In this case, for example, the plaintiffs asked the defendant to produce a witness who resides in Michigan and could not reasonably be expected to appear the next day in a California courtroom without any advance notice.

Another problem is that the defendant may not possess the requested information.  For example, plaintiffs often ask for a balance sheet, but some defendants, especially individuals and closely held corporations, may not have any balance sheet.  Defendants are not required to manufacture evidence in order to respond to a discovery request.  Plaintiffs need to gather whatever documents are available, depose witnesses, and perhaps involve a forensic accountant in order to get an accurate picture of the defendant’s finances.  That is difficult to do in the middle of trial.

So what is the alternative?  According to this opinion, if a plaintiff does not obtain a court order before trial permitting financial condition discovery, the plaintiff should at least take advantage of the subpoena process provided by Civil Code section 3295(c).  The plaintiff can issue subpoenas to the defendant requiring it to be prepared to produce financial condition information if and when it becomes necessary, and the defendant may be required to identify relevant documents and witnesses who can testify on the issue of financial condition.  Another alternative is to reach a stipulation with the defendant, who would agree to gather specific documents, bring them to trial under seal, and make them immediately available in the event the jury makes a finding of malice.  If the plaintiff sits back and does nothing to initiate financial condition discovery until after the jury’s finding of malice, the plaintiff is at the mercy of the court’s discretion whether to delay the proceedings to permit discovery.

In this case, the plaintiffs chose the “do nothing” strategy.  They did not seek pretrial discovery of the defendant’s financial condition, did not use the statutory subpoena procedure, and did not reach a stipulation with the defendant.  When the jury found malice and the plaintiffs requested financial information that was not immediately available, the trial court declined to exercise its discretion to delay the trial to permit the plaintiffs to complete their discovery.  (The plaintiffs did not even ask for that—the court raised the idea and then rejected it.)  The best the plaintiffs could do was present an expert to testify about the financial condition of the defendant’s parent company.  That expert was able to provide only a little information about the actual defendant; the expert testified about the defendant’s revenues from one line of business, but could not shed any light on the defendant’s liabilities or expenses.

The Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) found the plaintiff's showing wholly inadequate to support an award of punitive damages: the expert’s testimony “at most demonstrated that some portion of [defendant’s] business turned a profit.  It did not provide any of the requisite current information about [defendant]’s overall financial condition outside [that product] line.”

The Court of Appeal concluded that the plaintiffs, not the defendants, were responsible for this absence of evidence:

 [P]laintiffs erroneously believed the financial information they obtained through publicly available channels would be sufficient until [defendant] pointed out, on the eve of the punitive damages phase, that their expert had analyzed the wrong company. The court was not obligated to accommodate plaintiffs’ last-minute attempt to obtain the correct information through traditional discovery channels. There was no indication that [defendant] in any way hampered or even opposed plaintiffs’ efforts to obtain the information in a more timely fashion. To the contrary, the record reflects that plaintiffs did not undertake any effort to obtain the information at an earlier juncture, whether by issuing a subpoena, seeking a stipulation, or a making a motion pursuant to Civil Code section 3295, subdivision (c). (See Kelly, supra, 145 Cal.App.4th at pp. 919- 920.) Instead, they assumed [the defendant] would simply come forward with the information, unprompted. “Whatever merit there might be to that approach in other cases, it was an unfortunate choice in this one.” (Amoco Chemical Co. v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s of London, England (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 554, 562.) By all indications, plaintiffs had a full and fair opportunity to engage in discovery but elected to take the wait-and-see approach. They must bear the consequences of the resultant evidentiary shortfall. (See Baxter, supra, 150 Cal.App.4th at p. 681; Kelly, supra, 145 Cal.App.4th at p. 920; contra Mike Davidov Co., supra, 78 Cal.App.4th at pp. 609-610; Green v. Laibco, LLC, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 453-454.)
 As a result, the Court of Appeal completely vacated the $32.5 million punitive damages award.  Because the plaintiffs had a chance to conduct proper discovery and failed to do so, they are not entitled to go back and try again.