Punitive Damage Awards In California

Civil Code section 3294, subdivision (a), authorizes recovery of punitive damages in a tort action on the basis of findings "that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice . . . ." As in most insurance cases, punitive damages here can be most plausibly justified by a finding of oppression or malice. As used in subdivision (a), "oppression" is defined to mean "despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person's rights." (Civ. Code, 3294, subd. (c).) "Malice" is defined to mean inter alia "despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others." (Ibid). As interpreted in College Hospital Inc. v. Superior Court (1994) 8 Cal. 4th 704, 725 34 Cal. Rptr. 2d 898, 882 P.2d 894, the requirement of "despicable" conduct represents a "substantive limitation on punitive damage awards. Used in its ordinary sense, the adjective 'despicable' is a powerful term that refers to circumstances that are 'base,' 'vile,' or 'contemptible.' In addition, Civil Code section 3294, subdivision (a), requires proof "by clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant is guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice. In re Angelia P. (1981) 28 Cal. 3d 908, 919 171 Cal. Rptr. 637, 623 P.2d 198, provides an authoritative explanation of the clear and convincing evidence standard: " 'clear and convincing' evidence requires a finding of high probability. This standard is not new. We described such a test, 80 years ago, as requiring that the evidence be ' "so clear as to leave no substantial doubt"; "sufficiently strong to command the unhesitating assent of every reasonable mind." ' Citation. It retains validity today." In this appeal, the jury award of punitive damages must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence. ( Nat. Auto. & Cas. Co. v. Ind. Acc. Com. (1949) 34 Cal. 2d 20, 25 206 P.2d 841; Patrick v. Maryland Casualty Co. (1990) 217 Cal. App. 3d 1566, 1576 267 Cal. Rptr. 24). As in other cases involving the issue of substantial evidence, we are bound to "consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, giving him the benefit of every reasonable inference, and resolving conflicts in support of the judgment." (9 Witkin, Cal. Procedure, supra, Appeal, 359, p. 408). But since the jury's findings were subject to a heightened burden of proof, we must review the record in support of these findings in light of that burden. In other words, we must inquire whether the record contains "substantial evidence to support a determination by clear and convincing evidence . . . ." ( Tomaselli v. Transamerica Ins. Co., supra, 25 Cal. App. 4th at p. 1287). In Stewart v. Truck Ins. Exchange (1993) 17 Cal. App. 4th 468 21 Cal. Rptr. 2d 338, the court set out a careful discussion of the standard of review of adjudications of punitive damage claims. Reviewing a judgment for nonsuit on a claim of punitive damages, the court explained, "If a plaintiff is to recover on such a claim of punitive damages, it will be necessary that the evidence presented meet this higher evidentiary standard. As the United States Supreme Court put it, in the context of ruling on a motion for summary judgment, 'the judge must view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive clear and convincing evidentiary burden . . . .' . . . We see no reason why this standard should not apply here. . . . Thus, the trial court properly viewed the evidence presented by plaintiff with that higher burden in mind. In our review of the trial court's order granting the nonsuit, we can do no differently." ( Id. at p. 482).