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A plaintiff suing for breach of contract must prove it has performed all conditions on its part or that it was excused from performance. Thus, one who himself or herself breaches a contract cannot recover for a subsequent breach by the other party. But, in contract law, a material breach excuses further performance by the innocent party. Normally, the question of whether a breach of an obligation is a material breach, so as to excuse performance by the other party, is a question of fact.
Plaintiffs David and Joyce Plotnik sued their neighbor, defendant John Meihaus, Jr. (Meihaus), and two of his sons, defendants Greg Meihaus and John Meihaus III, alleging both contract and tort claims. In part, plaintiffs sought recovery for the emotional distress they suffered when Meihaus injured their dog. The superior court entered a judgment on jury verdicts that awarded David Plotnik over $175,000 against all defendants and Joyce Plotnik over $255,000 against Meihaus. The awards included emotional distress damages resulting from the dog's injury. In response to defendants' motion for new trial, the superior court entered an amended judgment after plaintiffs accepted a remittitur reducing the damage awards to $146,600 for David Plotnik and $205,209.53 for Joyce Plotnik. The court also granted plaintiffs $93,780 in attorney fees against Meihaus on the breach of contract claim. Defendants appealed from both the original and amended judgments.
Did Meihaus's repeated acts of harassment support a finding that he materially breached the settlement agreement, thereby excusing Joyce Plotnik's noncompliance with the mutual restraint clause's prohibition by making disparaging statements about him to others?
The court held that the evidence supported the verdicts on plaintiffs' claims alleging that the neighbor had breached a mutual restraint clause in the parties' prior settlement agreement by engaging in repeated acts of harassment. Regarding plaintiff husband's claim that the neighbor's sons assaulted him, the evidence fell short of that required for an assault. Because California law allowed a pet owner to recover for mental suffering caused by another's intentional act that injured or killed his or her animal, the emotional distress damages that plaintiffs recovered for trespass to personal property arising from the neighbor's act of intentionally striking their dog with a bat were proper. The jury's special verdicts that allowed recovery of emotional distress damages for the neighbor's injuring the dog under theories of negligence and trespass to personal property, plus potentially as part of the damages awarded for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, constituted duplicative damages for the same transactional event, thus violating the rule against double recovery.