April 1, 2021

Court of Appeal confirms that trier of fact can decline to award punitive damages even if malice is proven (Lei v. Yan)

The plaintiffs in this malicious prosecution won a judgment in their favor after a bench trial, but they were disappointed that the trial judge did not award punitive damages.  They appealed, arguing they were entitled to punitive damages as a matter of law.

The Court of Appeal (First District, Division Three) agreed that the plaintiffs presented "abundant evidence" to support a finding that the defendant acted with malice.  The unpublished opinion went on to explain, however, that even when the evidence could support a finding of malice, a jury (or a court in a bench trial) is never required to award punitive damages.  As prior courts have explained, a plaintiff is never entitled to punitive damages as a matter of right.  Accordingly, the court here found no basis for overturning the trial court's decision not to award punitive damages.