January 4, 2019

Court of Appeal reduces punitive damages award from $1 million to $11,800 (Rinehart v. Bank Card Consultants)

This unpublished opinion holds that a $1 million punitive damages award is excessive in light of the defendant's financial condition.

A jury found the defendant liable for wrongful termination and awarded $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.  The defendant appealed, arguing that the punitive damages award was excessive because it was disproportionate to the defendant's ability to pay.

The Court of Appeal (Fourth District, Division Three) agreed.  The only evidence of the defendant's financial condition showed an annual net income of $180,000 and a net worth of $86,000.  The Court of Appeal said the punitive damages award was "clearly excessive" because it represented five times the defendant's annual net income and more then 10 times its net worth. The court explained that an award of one month of net income, or 10 percent of net worth, "would approximate the maximum award that would pass muster."  Ten percent of net worth would be $8,600, and one month of net income would be $15,000, so the court averaged those two amounts and concluded that the maximum permissible award would be $11,800.

The Court of Appeal should have ended the proceedings by ordering the trial court to reduce the punitive damages to the maximum amount.  (See Simon v. San Paolo U.S. Holding Co.)  As some courts put it, the plaintiff should not get a "second bite at the apple" after having failed to present sufficient financial condition evidence to support the punitive damages award the first time around.  (See Kelly v. Haag.)  Here, however, the Court of Appeal did exactly that.  It let the plaintiff choose between a new trial or a reduction of the punitive damages to $11,800.