Punitive Damages and Ex Post Facto Clause
According to ex post facto doctrine, the fact that a statute is labeled as civil is not dispositive. If the effect of a statute is to impose punishment that is criminal in nature, the ex post facto law is implicated. (Kansas v. Hendricks (1997) 521 U.S. 346, 360-361.)
In Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. (1981) 119 Cal. App. 3d 757, the defendant auto maker contended that punitive damages for an automotive design defect violated the ex post facto clause because at the time the cars were manufactured it had no warning that such damages might be recoverable under Civil Code section 3294.
The appellate court rejected that notion with little discussion, finding it without merit because the doctrine "extends to criminal statutes and penalties, not to civil statutes." (Id. at p. 811.)
Grimshaw's holding was endorsed in Peterson v. Superior Court (1982) 31 Cal.3d 147, where the California Supreme Court considered whether plaintiffs injured by drunken drivers were entitled to retroactive application of a judicial decision allowing punitive damage awards against the defendants who caused their injuries. Even though the ex post facto doctrine is not applicable to judicial decisions, the plaintiff advanced an argument based on that theory. Citing to some of the same decisions relied on in Grimshaw, the Peterson court held that although punitive damages can be viewed as a type of punishment, the ex post facto doctrine did not apply to cases "presenting the possible exposure to civil penalties." (Peterson, supra, at p. 161.)
In Logan v. Drew (N.D.Ill. 1992) 790 F. Supp. 181, the court considered whether punitive damages in a federal civil rights claim against two police officers (42 U.S.C. 1983) violated the ex post facto doctrine. Because the federal statute was intended to create a species of tort liability, the district court held that the ex post facto clause did not apply. (Id. at p. 183.)