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Case of the Month Archive

September 2023

Gov't C §818 precludes the recovery of enhanced damages under CCP §340.1(b)(1) from a public entity. . .

 

In affirmance, the California Supreme Court held Gov't C §818 [prohibiting punitive damages against public entities] shields school district, which allegedly covered up employee's sexual assault of student, from enhanced damages authorized by CCP §340.1(b)(1) [award of up to treble damages for victim of sexual assault that was the result of cover up].

 

Los Angeles Unified School District v. Superior Court (Jane Doe)

(June 1, 2023)

California Supreme Court, S269608, 14 Cal.5th 758, 308 Cal.Rptr.3d 822, 2023 FA 2091, per Guerrero (Corrigan, J., Liu, J., Kruger, J., Groban, J., Jenkins, J., and Evans, J., concurring). Los Angeles County: Watkins, J. For Los Angeles Unified School District (Petitioner): Calvin R. House and Arthur C. Preciado. For Superior Court of Los Angeles (Respondent): Frederick Bennett. For Jane Doe (Real Party in Interest): David M. Ring, Natalie L. Weatherford, Holly Noelle Boyer, Kevin Kenny Nguyen, and Kathleen J. Beckett. CFLP §G.197.10.

 

In November 2014, Jane Doe, a ninth-grade student at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School, was sexually assaulted by Daniel Garcia, a school employee. In May 2016, Garcia was arrested and charged with criminal offenses related to his sexual misconduct.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which operates various schools, including Daniel Pearl Magnet High School, learned in February 2014 that Garcia was in a relationship with another female student while he worked at a different school. Instead of firing Garcia, the school district transferred him to the high school where Doe was a student. The school district also created a false report that Garcia and the other female student met and dated before Garcia began his employment with the school district.

Doe filed a lawsuit against Garcia and the school district, claiming sexual abuse, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and sexual harassment against Garcia and negligence and a claim for failing to report suspected child abuse against the school district. In addition to economic and noneconomic damages, Doe sought punitive and exemplary damages against the school district under CCP §340.1(b)(1) [award of up to treble damages for victim of sexual assault that was the result of a cover up]. In response, the school district filed a motion to strike the portion of Doe's complaint that alleged a cover up and that requested treble damages, arguing application of Gov't C §818 [prohibiting punitive damages against public entities]. The trial court denied the school district's motion to strike, concluding that CCP §340.1(b)(1)'s treble damages provision is compensatory, not punitive. The Second District granted the school district's writ petition and concluded that Gov't C §818 shields public entities from the imposition of enhanced damages under CCP §340.1(b)(1). The California Supreme Court granted review and affirmed the Second District's judgment.

The justices began their analysis by looking at the language of and rationales behind the two statutes in question. Gov't C §818 provides "'Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a public entity is not liable for damages awarded under Section 3294 of the Civil Code or other damages imposed primarily for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.'" The justices observed that the statute's plain language shields public entities from punitive and exemplary damages. They further noted that the statute also prohibits "other kinds of damages when they function in essence as awards of punitive or exemplary damages." In finding that Gov't C §818 applies not only to damages that are "'simply and solely'" punitive but also to damages that would function, in essence, as an award of punitive or exemplary damages, the court overruled People ex rel. Younger v. Superior Court, 16 Cal.3d 30, 127 Cal.Rptr. 122; San Francisco Civil Service Assn. v. Superior Court, 16 Cal.3d 46, 127 Cal.Rptr. 131; and Kizer v. County of San Mateo, 53 Cal.3d 139, 279 Cal.Rptr. 318, insofar as the decisions in those cases articulate that the Gov't C §818 inquiry "hinges on whether a damages provision is deemed solely punitive in nature." The policy rationale behind this prohibition is to prevent a drain on the public treasury, since such liability "will be borne not by the immediate wrongdoers but by taxpayers."

After repudiating the former analysis applied to this issue, the panel concluded that Gov't C §818 requires a fact-specific inquiry concerning the damages provision being applied. The justices then explained that to determine whether an award of damages is or is not barred under Gov't C §818, relevant considerations include (1) whether a damages remedy functions to offset some otherwise applicable restriction on compensatory damages; (2) whether the challenged form of damages is conditioned on morally culpable conduct, beyond mere negligence; (3) whether there is an element of discretion by the fact finder in the award of damages; and (4) whether in the normal course actual damages are likely to be difficult to establish or quantify.

 

The enhanced damages provision of CCP §340.1(b)(1) are punitive in nature. . .
The justices next turned to CCP §340.1(b)(1), which provides that in an action seeking damages suffered due to childhood sexual assault, "'a person who is sexually assaulted and proves it was as the result of a cover up may recover up to treble damages against defendant who is found to have covered up the sexual assault of a minor unless prohibited by another law.'" For several reasons, the panel concluded that the enhanced damages authorized by the statute are punitive or exemplary damages for purposes of Gov't C §818. First, the statute in question provides for up to treble damages, which, although not dispositive of the issue, is often a quality of punitive or exemplary damages. Second, the justices explained that the phrase "unless prohibited by another law" likely refers to Gov't C §818. Thus, the Legislature had in mind that the enhanced damages authorized under CCP §340.1 would not apply to public entities. Third, the enhanced damages "have [other] substantial punitive qualities." For example, the damages in question are premised on the defendant's morally culpable conduct (i.e., covering up sexual abuse) and may award damages substantially greater than the amount necessary to fully compensate a plaintiff. For these reasons, the panel determined that the enhanced damages provision of CCP §340.1(b)(1) are punitive or exemplary for purposes of Gov't C §818.

In reaching its conclusion, the justices rejected several of Doe's arguments. First, the justices rejected Doe's argument that the Legislature must have intended for CCP §340.1(b)(1) to apply to public school cover ups since so much of the legislative discussion involved public schools. But as the justices noted, the Legislative discussion involved cover ups by "'numerous institutions,'" including private schools. Second, the justices rejected Doe's argument that the treble damages provision authorized under CCP §340.1(b)(1) must apply to public entities or else it "would merely duplicate plaintiffs' existing right to pursue punitive damages against private defendants." But, the justices noted, Legislatures may codify common law principles "'even if they repeat preexisting law, without fear the courts will find them unnecessary….'" As a result, the enhanced damages provision would not be superfluous even if it applied only to private entities. Fourth, the justices rejected Doe's argument that the enhanced damages provision must apply to public entities based on the analysis of the most recent Assembly Bill amending CCP §340.1, which read, in relevant part, "that the measure 'applies equally to abuse occurring at public and private schools and applies to all local public entities.'" Here, the justices noted that this language, when read in context, appears to discuss other provisions of the bill, such as the statute of limitations and claim-revival provision, and not the enhanced damages provision. Fifth, the justices rejected Doe's argument that the enhanced damages provision should be permitted to compensate for litigation-related stress, noting that conventional damages principles already compensate for mental suffering. Finally, the justices concluded that the cases cited by Doe to support her argument that Gov't C §818 does not preclude recovery of enhanced damages under CCP §340.1(b)(1) from a public entity were all distinguishable from the facts of this case.

For the foregoing reasons, the California Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Second District.

 

 

COMMENT:

  

The justices discussed at length the enactment of Assembly Bill No. 218 (2019-2020 Reg. Sess.), which made several revisions to CCP §340.1. In addition to the treble damages provision, the bill also expanded the definition of childhood sexual assault, extended the time for filing claims for childhood sexual assault, and created a revival period for lapsed claims. The Legislature announced in its analysis of the bill that it hopes the amendments "confront the pervasive problem of cover ups in institutions" and cited shocking examples that continue to exist in schools, religious institutions, and organized sports. In their closing remarks, the justices noted "our decision today does not in any way minimize the trauma that victims of childhood sexual assault must endure." The panel concluded its opinion by suggesting that the Legislature may change the law if it believes that public entities found to have covered up a childhood sexual assault should be held liable for enhanced damages.

 

Library References
5 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (11th ed. 2023) Torts, §§275, 548A
Hogoboom & King, Cal. Practice Guide: Family Law (The Rutter Group) ¶6:118

 

 

 
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