October 12, 2017

Ninth Circuit affirms $2 million punitive damages award in employment case (Flores v. City of Westminster)

The Ninth Circuit issued this published opinion yesterday, affirming punitive damages in excess of $2 million and compensatory damages of $855,000.  The plaintiffs were three Latino police officers who alleged that the City of Westminster discriminated against them.

The case actually involved nine separate punitive damages awards, because each of the three plaintiffs recovered punitive damages from each of the three defendants.  The ratios of punitive damages to compensatory damages ranged from a low of 1:8 to a high of 8:1.  The court found that none of these ratios violated due process, in light of the highly reprehensible nature of the defendants' conduct.

One interesting wrinkle is that one of the defendants died before trial. California law governs the question whether the punitive damages claim against that defendant survived his death, and the general rule is that punitive damages are not available against a decedent's estate.  However, the Ninth Circuit observed that defense counsel agreed to submit the punitive damages claim to the jury despite the defendant's death.  The court seems to be suggesting that the defense might have forfeited the issue, but instead of addressing that question squarely, the Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the district court to decide the recoverability of punitive damages from the decedent's estate.