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Friday, June 2, 2023


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Treble Damages Against Public Entity Are Barred—S.C.

Guerrero Says Statute Permitting Trebling of Damages for Childhood Sexual Attributable to ‘Cover Up’ Cannot Be Applied to Los Angeles Unified School District Because Enhanced Damages Are, in Essence, Punitive


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A statute that provides for treble damages for a childhood sexual assault which occurred “as the result of a cover up” cannot be applied to a governmental entity, the California Supreme Court unanimously held yesterday, affirming the granting of a writ of mandate by the Court of Appeal for this district ordering that portions of a complaint seeking enhanced damages be stricken.

The action was brought by a minor, denominated Jane Doe, against the Los Angeles Unified School District (“LAUSD”) based on the alleged conduct of a classroom aide, Daniel Garcia. The plaintiff alleged that the district knew of Garcia’s “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship with a female student at another school but covered up his misconduct.

Yesterday’s high court opinion, by Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero, like the May 21, 2021 decision by Court of Appeal Justice Anne H. Egerton of this district’s Div. Three, is grounded in Government Code §818.

That section says that “a public entity is not liable” for punitive damages, awardable under Civil Code §3294, “or other damages imposed primarily for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”

Plaintiff Jane Doe’s contention is that treble damages—authorized by Code of Civil Procedure §340.1(b)(1) where “a person who is sexually assaulted and proves it was as the result of a cover up”—are not the same as punitive damages, and that in her complaint against the school district, she does not seek the latter.

Superior Court Ruling

Doe persuaded Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Shirley K. Watkins that she’s right. The judge, in denying LAUSD’s motion for an order striking the treble-damage claim on Aug. 12, 2020, said:

“Per the case law submitted by both parties, the immunity from punitive damages under GC §818 is narrow and applicable to damages whose purpose is ‘simply and solely punitive or exemplary.’…As drafted and put into effect on January 1, 2020, CCP §340.1 makes no reference to punitive damages but authorizes the Court with discretion to award ‘up to treble damages.’…The statute docs not reference “punitive” damages. Defendant argues that the treble damages is akin to punitive damages due to the ‘up to’ qualifier. Although the ‘up to’ language is seen as a hallmark of punitive damages, it is noted that the statute’s legislative history makes no reference to treble damages being a punishment. The legislative intent for treble damages was to compensate the victim.”

Watkins reasoned:

“Because the treble damages herein are not for punishment but for compensation, the immunity under GC §8l8 is inapplicable.”

Appeals Court Opinion

In her opinion countermanding Watkins, Egerton said that sovereign immunity bars actions against governmental entities except where expressly permitted by statute. Where permitted, she declared, only actual damages may be awarded in light of §818.

Egerton wrote:

The treble damages provision in section 340.1 does not have a compensatory function; its primary purpose is to punish past childhood sexual abuse coverups to deter future ones. While this is a worthy public policy objective, it is not one for which the state has waived sovereign immunity under the Government Claims Act.… A public entity like LAUSD is immune from these enhanced damages under section 818.”

Supreme Court’s Decision

Guerrero pointed out:

“[S]ection 818’s plain language also establishes that its prohibition can extend to more than just what are conventionally referred to as ‘punitive damages.’ In providing that ‘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 (§ 818, italics added), the statute, with its focus on the practical operation of a damages provision, conveys that it also captures other kinds of damages when they function, in essence, as awards of punitive or exemplary damages.”

The intent of §818, she said, is to bar imposition of any damages against a public entity “that function, in essence, as punitive or exemplary damages.”

She wrote:

“We conclude that plaintiff fails to sufficiently distinguish the enhanced damages authorized under section 340.1(b)(1) from punitive or exemplary damages.”

The case is Los Angeles Unified School District v. Superior Court (Doe), 2023 S.O.S. 1809.


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