A Public School District Maintains Sovereign Immunity From Liability For Treble Damages Under Government Code Section 818

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Jun 30, 2021

Plaintiff Jane Doe attended high school in Los Angeles Unified School District. While enrolled, a District employee sexually abused Doe. Additionally, before the incident against Doe, the District allegedly engaged in a cover-up of the employee’s sexual abuse of another female student.

Doe sued the District. She alleged negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of an unfit employee; breach of mandatory duty to report suspected child abuse; negligent failure to warn, train, or educate; and negligent supervision of a minor. She sought an award of economic and non-economic damages against all defendants and an award of treble damages against the District, which would allow the trial court to triple the amount of compensatory damages the District would owe her.

The District moved to strike the request for treble damages. It argued the award of treble damages under California Code of Civil Procedure Section 340.1 would be “punitive” and, therefore, prohibited against a public entity under Government Code Section 818.

Doe opposed the District’s motion. She argued that the purpose of treble damages was not “merely punitive” but also serves a compensatory function. Doe asked the trial court to take judicial notice of several Assembly Floor Analyses of the enacting legislation that included statements attributed to the bill’s author that seemed to support the idea that the Legislature intended treble damages to both compensate victims and serve as an effective deterrent against individuals and entities who protect perpetrators of sexual assault. Accordingly, she argued the trial court could award her treble damages.

The trial court ruled in Doe’s favor. Specifically, the trial court found the treble damages provision had a compensatory function, so the District was not immune from paying treble damages to Doe. The District filed a special petition, called a writ of mandate, with the Court of Appeal asking it to direct the trial court to rule in the District’s favor.

Code of Civil Procedure Section 340.1 authorizes an award of “up to treble damages” in a tort action for childhood sexual assault where the assault occurred “as the result of a cover-up.” However, Government Code section 818 exempts a public entity from an award of damages “imposed primarily for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”

In the writ petition, Doe argued that legislative history intended treble damages to both compensate victims and serve as an effective deterrent against individuals and entities who protect perpetrators of sexual assault. However, the Court of Appeal found that the Assembly Floor Analyses that contained this author’s remarks were the only reference to compensation related to treble damages in all the legislative history materials the Parties offered.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal found that a solitary statement repeated in legislative analyses that treble damages are necessary to compensate victims of a cover-up did not unambiguously demonstrate that the Legislature added the provision regarding treble damages for that expressed purpose. The statement did not identify what injury the treble damages were needed to compensate. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal declined to embrace the Assembly Floor Analyses as an unambiguous expression of the Legislature’s intent.

Furthermore, Doe did not identify any injury from a childhood sexual assault or cover-up for which normal tort damages failed to provide full compensation. On the contrary, the treble damages imposed under Code of Civil Procedure Section 340.1 were, by definition, in addition to a plaintiff’s actual damages, and the statute necessarily awards the plaintiff, upon proof of a cover-up, damages “beyond the equivalent of harm done.” Because the treble damages provision plainly was designed to punish those who cover-up childhood sexual abuse and thereby deter future cover-ups, rather than to compensate victims, the imposition of these damages was primarily punitive under Government Code Section 818, and therefore could not be awarded against the District.

Doe also argued even if the treble damages did not serve a compensatory function, the treble damages provision was nevertheless beyond the purview of Government Code Section 818 because it advanced a non-punitive “public policy objective.” She argued the provision’s focus on cover-ups reflects a legislative imperative to bring past childhood sexual abuse to light, and she argued that the availability of treble damages advanced this objective by offering victims an incentive to come forward to “end the pattern of abuse.” The Court of Appeal held that even if it agreed with Doe that the treble damages provision incentivized victims to file claims for childhood sexual assault, the supposed public policy objective did not remove the enhanced damages provision from Government Code Section 818’s purview. The treble damages provision in the Code of Civil Procedure Section 340.1 did not have a compensatory function; its primary purpose is to punish past childhood sexual abuse cover-ups to deter future ones. While the Court of Appeal found this to be a worthy public policy objective, it was not one for which the state waived sovereign immunity under the Tort Claims Act. Accordingly, a public entity like the District was immune from treble damages under Government Code Section 818.

The Court of Appeal granted the District’s writ and directed the trial court to enter an order granting the District’s motion to strike the treble damages request.

Los Angeles Unified Sch. Dist. v. Superior Ct. of Los Angeles Cty. (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 549.

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