June 17, 2017

Trial court improperly weighed evidence when granting JNOV on punitive damages (Swendrak v. Urode)

The case involves an odd set of facts.  The plaintiff claimed that his landlords invaded his privacy by posting a notice in his apartment complex informing all the tenants that the police had placed him under a psychiatric hold.  A jury awarded him $200,000 in compensatory damages and $650,000 in punitive damages.

The defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), arguing that the evidence did not support the jury's finding that they acted with malice. The trial court agreed, finding that "the weight of the evidence did not support a finding of malice by clear and convincing evidence."

The Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three) reversed in an unpublished opinion, finding that the trial court applied the wrong standard when reviewing the evidence.  When a trial court rules on a JNOV motion, the court is not permitted to re-weigh the evidence.  The court must draw every reasonable inference in favor of the party who won at trial, and can grant JNOV only if there is no substantial evidence to support the verdict.

Here, because the trial court's JNOV order referred to the "weight" of the evidence, the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court must have impermissibly re-weighed the evidence.  That alone might not have been enough to justify reversal, if there were no substantial evidence of malice.  But the Court of Appeal, reviewing the entire record, concluded that a jury could infer that the defendants acted with malice, and that they posted the notice about the plaintiff with intent to force him out so  they could rent his unit at a higher price.  Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court's JNOV ruling and reinstated the jury's award of punitive damages.