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Pearl v. City of Los Angeles - 36 Cal. App. 5th 475 (2019)

Rule:

California Code Civ. Proc., § 662.5, subd. (a)(2), authorizes a court that has decided it would be proper to order a new trial limited to the issue of damages to issue a conditional order granting the new trial unless the party in whose favor the verdict has been rendered consents to a reduction of the award in an amount the court in its independent judgment determines from the evidence to be fair and reasonable. A court exercising this authority acts as an independent trier of fact.

Facts:

A jury awarded a city employee $17,394,972, including $10 million in past and $5 million in future noneconomic damages, in his employment action against the city for harassment and failure to prevent harassment and retaliation in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (Gov. Code, § 12940 et seq.). The city filed a motion for new trial, arguing the damages were excessive. The trial court conditionally granted the city's new trial motion unless the employee agreed to a remittitur reducing past noneconomic damages by $5 million. After the employee accepted the remittitur, the trial court denied the city's new trial motion and entered an amended judgment in the amount of $12,394,972, exclusive of attorney fees and costs. The City appealed, contending that the court abused its discretion in utilizing the remitter procedure to reduce damages. Without challenging the jury's liability findings, the City argued that, once the court found that aspects of the jury's award were punitive, it had no choice but to grant a new trial on the limited issue of damages.

Issue:

Did the trial court abuse its discretion in utilizing the remitter procedure to reduce damages?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment. The court held that the trial court, in its role as an independent fact finder, had the authority to condition a denial of a new trial motion asserting excessive damages on the employee's acceptance of a reduced award in accordance with Code Civ. Proc., § 662.5. The trial court did not reapportion liability when it reduced the damage award. The trial court expressly identified both the employee's counsel's improper statements in closing argument and the apparent punitive aspect of the verdict as its grounds for reducing damages. The city had not shown how the trial court's evidentiary rulings, whether or not erroneous, were prejudicial following the trial court's remittitur order. The evidence of the medical experts, undisputed at trial, was that severe and unremitting harassment had caused the employee to suffer a catastrophic emotional and physical breakdown that resulted in malignant and chronic hypertension, organ damage, partial hearing and vision loss, and disabling and chronic psychiatric illness. In conditioning the denial of a new trial on the employee's acceptance of a reduced sum for past noneconomic damages, the trial court, stating its reasons in great detail, determined that an award of noneconomic damages (past and future) in the amount of $10 million was fair and reasonable, observing the employee would suffer for the rest of his life. That determination, amply supported by the evidence in the record, was not an abuse of the trial court's broad discretion.

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