October 16, 2019

Court of Appeal affirms $855,000 punitive damages award where defendant forfeited right to object to lack of financial condition evidence (Garcia v. Myllyla)

Often you can tell how a case is going to turn out when you read the  summary of the facts.  That's certainly true in this case involving claims against a landlord for negligent failure to provide habitable premises.  Here's how the court describes the condition of the defendant's apartment building in this published opinion:

     Only two units in the [12-unit] Building had kitchens, and there were only two community rest rooms. There was evidence that human waste had been thrown out of the Building and had collected on the back. There were openings that permitted rodents and vermin to enter. Steps to the Building were infected with dry rot and were close to collapsing. The Building contained illegal electrical work. An inspection by Plaintiffs’ expert revealed dead and live cockroaches throughout the Building and dirty bathrooms.
        As discussed further below, each of the Plaintiffs testified about his or her experiences in the building, which included cockroaches, bed bugs and other vermin; mold; and filthy conditions in common areas. Tenants were forced to wash their dishes outside the Building. There were several months when the Building had no power or water and residents had to purchase buckets of water from Myllyla’s daughter. One tenant had a cockroach removed from her ear.
After reading that summary, you're probably not surprised to learn that the court affirmed the award of punitive damages against the landlord (the jury awarded $95,000 in punitive damages to each of the nine plaintiffs).

The defendant's main argument on appeal was that the plaintiff failed to present any evidence of the defendant's financial condition.  As our readers know, that argument often succeeds because many California plaintiffs apparently don't realize it is their burden to present such evidence.  In this case, however, the plaintiffs attempted to obtain financial information from the defendant, who stonewalled their efforts.

The plaintiffs served two notices on the defendant pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1987, which provides a procedure to compel a party to attend trial and produce documents at trial.  Notices under section 1987 have the same effect as service of a subpoena. The notices in this case asked the defendant to appear at trial to testify about his financial condition, and to produce documents relating to his financial condition.

The defendant could have objected to the notices because they did not provide sufficient time to respond.  If the defendant had objected, he would have been excused from complying with the notices unless the plaintiffs moved to compel his compliance.  But instead of objecting, the defendant simply ignored the notices, refused to testify at trial, and refused to produce any financial documents.  As a result, the Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Two) holds that the defendant forfeited the right to complain about the lack of evidence of his finances.