Monday, June 06, 2022

Doe v. Lee (Cal. Ct. App. - June 6, 2022)

I wish this opinion had stayed unpublished. Indeed, I might prefer it were the California Supreme Court to revert its status to what it once was.

The opinion doesn't include many facts at all -- indeed, it's almost entirely bereft of them -- but from what you're able to glean from the opinion, it looks like the defendant took secret videos of the female plaintiffs in their homes, including an "upskirt" video of one of them. So they sued, and at a bench trial, recovered compensatory damages that totaled a little over $800,000.

Not surprisingly, given the nature of the torts, there were also punitive damages imposed. For a total of $240,000. An amount that's (1) a fraction of the compensatory damage award (a little under 30%), and (2) the value of an LLC interest that the trial court found the defendant continued to possess in a family business.

Seems reasonable to me, no? You can't invade someone's privacy by secretly taking sex-related (or other) videos. If you do, don't be surprised if you get spanked with some punitive damages.

But the Court of Appeal reverses the punitive damages award entirely.

Two things about that result seem problematic:

(1) I'm not persuaded that a $240,000 award isn't just fine. The Court of Appeal says that that'd be his entire net worth. For purposes of argument, at least, I'll stipulate to that. So what? Sometimes what you do is sufficiently horrible that you justifiably lose all your stuff. Sorry about that, but maybe next time, don't do what you did -- whether it be murder (I'm talking about you, O.J.) or secret videos (here). The various California cases on the issue rightly say that, generally, you shouldn't take away everything from the defendant -- though it bears mention that most of these involve corporations -- but they also say that sometimes, that's just fine. (See, e.g., O.J.). This seems like one of those "just fine" cases. If you only have $240,000, and you commit a tort that imposes (as here) $800,000+ worth of harm on the victims, then, yeah, we're taking all your money. You did it to yourself. Nor am I particularly sad by the fact that, with punitive damages, we're stopping you from getting out repaying by filing bankruptcy, since those types of damages aren't dischargeable. That's a feature, not a bug.

(2) Plus, I'm confused about the last sentences of the opinion, in which it directs the trial court to vacate the punitive damages award and says that a retrial isn't required. But when a punitive damages award is excessive, the usual rule is that we reduce it -- or order its reduction on a retrial -- not eliminate entirely all punitive damages recovery. Yet that's entirely what the opinion appears to do here. Is it really the Court of Appeal's holding that because the defendant is only worth $240,000, there's no amount of punitive damages that can be added to the $800,000 judgment?! If so, that's crazy (to me). It defeats the whole purpose of punitive damages in contexts like this one.

At the very end of the opinion, where you see the Court of Appeal's order that publishes the opinion, you find something that I've rarely (if ever) seen before -- Justice Hoch's one-sentence statement that she wouldn't publish the opinion. I can see why. I'm probably in the same camp. (Though, unlike Justice Hoch, I might not have even joined the result.)

I'm sympathetic to the view that punitive damages shouldn't generally take away every penny from a defendant. But sometimes the compensatory damages do that anyway, and I'm fine with that. And in some circumstances, like this one, the fact that the harm you (deliberately) incurred exceeds the amount of money that you currently have on hand shouldn't deprive the plaintiff of the right to spank you with an additional award of punitive damages.

Yet that's precisely what the Court of Appeal seems to hold.