June 9, 2020

Court of Appeal reverses $750,000 punitive damages award due to the absence of current evidence of the defendant's finances (Saxton v. Hip Hop Beverage Corp.)

Here is another installment in the long line of unpublished California opinions reversing a punitive damages award on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to present evidence of the defendant's financial condition.  This opinion addresses a recurring sub-issue in this area: if the defendant has no current balance sheets or other financial documents, does that excuse the plaintiff from presenting evidence of the defendant's current finances?  The answer is no.

The plaintiff sued his former employer for discrimination and harassment.  Shortly before trial, he served the defendant with a notice to produce documents at trial, including the defendant's financial records.  The defendant objected and the plaintiff filed a motion to compel production of the documents.  The trial court granted the motion and ordered the defendant to produce its tax returns, income statements, and balance sheets. 

On the first day of trial, the defendant provided the plaintiff with its documents through 2015, but did not produce any documents for 2016 or 2017.  (The trial took place in 2018.)  The company had apparently stopped operating in 2017.  When the plaintiff asked the defendant to produce records for 2016 and 2017, the defendant argued that it had "produced what existed" and was not required to "go create things."  The trial court agreed, and informed the plaintiff that he still needed to carry his burden of proof on the financial condition issue.

The case proceeded to trial and the plaintiff won a jury verdict for $72,000 in compensatory damages and $750,000 in punitive damages.  The defendant appealed, arguing that the plaintiff had failed to present evidence of the defendant's financial condition at the time of trial.

The Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Four) agreed and reversed the punitive damages award. The court held that the record contained evidence of the defendant's finances in 2016, but absolutely no evidence of the defendant's finances in 2018.  The record showed that the defendant ceased operations in 2017, and there was no evidence that it maintained the same assets or equity in 2017 or 2018 that it had in 2016. 

The plaintiff argued that the defendant should be estopped from complaining about the lack of  evidence of its current finances because the defendant failed to produce financial records for 2017 or 2018.  The Court of Appeal rejected that argument, citing the trial court's finding that the defendant produced all the information in its possession, and was not required to create non-existent documents in order to comply with the court's discovery order.  The court also rejected the plaintiff's request to consider new evidence that the plaintiff obtained while the appeal was pending.  The plaintiff bore the burden of presenting financial condition evidence at trial, and that failure could not be cured by supplementing the record after the fact.