The plaintiff, Jane Doe, was a student at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School, operated by Los Angeles Unified School District). Daniel Garcia was an employee at the school when plaintiff enrolled in the ninth grade for the 2014-2015 academic year.
Garcia began to give special attention to plaintiff. He acted affectionately toward her at school, rubbing her legs and holding her hand. Garcia also sent plaintiff flirtatious and sexual text messages. In November 2014, Garcia sexually assaulted her. Plaintiff later told her parents about Garcia’s actions. Her parents immediately contacted the police. In May 2016, Garcia was arrested and charged with criminal offenses associated with his misconduct.
Before these events occurred, the District allegedly had learned in February 2014 that Garcia – who at the time worked as an aide at a different District school – was involved in a “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship with another female student, H.M. The District did not fire Garcia upon learning of this relationship, but instead transferred him to the high school where he would encounter plaintiff. The District also created a false report stating that Garcia and H.M. had met and dated before Garcia’s employment with the District commenced.
Plaintiff’s civil action alleged sexual abuse, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and sexual harassment against Garcia. Against the District, plaintiff alleged various negligence theories and a claim for failing to report suspected child abuse. In addition to economic and non-economic damages, plaintiff seeks punitive and exemplary damages from Garcia and an award of up to treble damages under Code Civ. Proc., §340.1(b)(1) from the District.
The District brought a motion to strike the request for up to treble damages pursuant to Government Code section 818, a provision within the Government Claims Act, which specifies in relevant part 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.”
The superior court denied the motion, concluding that section 340.1(b)(1)’s treble damages provision was intended to be compensatory, not punitive. The Court of Appeal reversed, and determined that section 818 shields public entities from liability for enhanced damages under section 340.1(b)(1). The California Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeal and affirmed in the case of Los Angeles Unified School District v Superior Court – S269608 (June 2023).
Since the Court of Appeal ruling in this case, other Courts of Appeal also have determined that enhanced damages under section 340.1(b)(1) are not recoverable against public entities, such as the appellate court inX.M. v. Superior Court (2021) 68 Cal.App.5th 1014, review granted December 1, 2021, S271478 (X.M.). Even more recently, the court in K.M. v. Grossmont Union High School Dist. (2022) 84 Cal.App.5th 717 also concluded that section 818 precludes the application of section 340.1(b)(1) to public entities.
The Opinion noted that section 818 manifests an appreciation that when additional impositions upon a public entity are “primarily for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant,” they also create a liability that will be borne not by the immediate wrongdoers but by taxpayers, and may not effectively achieve the goals of retribution and deterrence. For these reasons, such awards should not be permitted, at least without a clear indication by the Legislature that they may be imposed.
In this case the first task was to identify the kinds of damages awards to which section 818 applies. Plaintiff argued that this provision prohibits only the imposition of damages that are “simply and solely punitive.” However the Supreme Court concluded “that section 818 is not so limited, and instead immunizes public entities from damages awarded under Civil Code section 3294 and from other damages that would function, in essence, as an award of punitive or exemplary damages.”
The Opinion then discussed Code of Civil Procedure Section 340.1 which is, for the most part, a statute of limitations intended to expand the ability of victims of childhood sexual abuse to hold to account individuals and entities responsible for their injuries. Since its original enactment in 1986 the statute has been amended on multiple occasions to extend the filing periods for claims alleging childhood sexual assault and revive otherwise time-barred claims.
A 2019 amendment revised section 340.1(b)(1) to provide 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 a defendant who is found to have covered up the sexual assault of a minor, unless prohibited by another law.”
The Opinion went on to note that “This court and others have frequently characterized treble damages as exemplary or punitive.” And it went on to say that “In adding the treble damages provision to section 340.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure, the Legislature presumably was aware of our prior decisions so characterizing treble damages and understood that the provision could be perceived similarly.”
And similarly it said “the damages authorized under section 340.1(b)(1) have substantial punitive qualities beyond the simple fact that they may go well beyond actual damages. These objective characteristics confirm that enhanced damages under the statute function, in essence, as punitive or exemplary damages by serving ‘to punish past childhood sexual abuse coverups to deter future ones.’ “
Thus the Justices then determined that in enacting Government Code section 818 the Legislature intended to shield public entities from damages under Civil Code section 340.1(b)(1).
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