September 22, 2017

California Legislature passes bill to relax burden of proof for punitive damages in narrow category of cases

Although California juries are known to hand out hefty punitive damages, California law actually contains quite a few safeguards against arbitrary and irrational punitive damages awards. That's why many of the headline-grabbing awards are later reduced or vacated by the courts.  Perhaps, however, our Legislature is starting to chip away at those safeguards.

Both houses of the Legislature have voted to approve AB-859, which now heads to the governor for signature.  The bill lowers the burden of proof for punitive damages claims in a limited category cases: Elder Abuse claims against skilled nursing facilities that have engaged in spoliation of evidence.  If the governor signs the bill, punitive damages in such cases will now be governed by the "preponderance of the evidence" standard of proof, instead of the more stringent "clear and convincing evidence" standard.

On its face, this modification may seem insignificant.  It only applies to skilled nursing facilities, only in Elder Abuse cases, and only where spoliation of evidence has been established.  How many cases like that can there be?  Some might call this bill a nothingburger.  On the other hand, any step towards eroding the safeguards in California punitive damages law is cause for alarm for all defendants.