May 23, 2018

California Court of Appeal affirms trial court's reduction of punitive damages from $7 million to $1 million (Torres v. B/E Aerospace)

This unpublished opinion demonstrates that, under the right circumstances, California courts can find a punitive damages award excessive even when it is less than ten times the amount of compensatory damages.

A jury in this employment discrimination case awarded $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $7 million in punitive damages.  The trial court ordered a new trial conditioned on the plaintiff's acceptance of a reduction in the punitive damages to $1 million.  The plaintiff accepted the remittitur and both sides appealed.

The Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Four) affirmed across the board.  First, it rejected the defendant's argument that the plaintiff failed to prove malice on the part of an officer, director, or managing agent.  In the process, the court held that the defendant's adoption of an anti-discrimination policy did not act as a shield against punitive damages, because although the company adopted the policy in good faith, it did not implement the policy in good faith.

Second, the Court of Appeal rejected the plaintiff's argument that the trial court erred by ordering the remittitur from $7 million to $1 million.  The court noted that single-digit punitive-to-compensatory ratios are not presumptively valid, especially when the compensatory damages itself is substantial or contains a punitive element.  The court noted that the compensatory damages award here was 19 times more than the plaintiff's annual salary, and included a large emotional distress component, which has both a punitive aspect and a deterrent effect.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court properly reduced the award to a 1-to-1 ratio.