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Sovereign Immunity Bars Victims Of Childhood Sexual Assault From Recovering Punitive Treble Damages From Public Schools
X.M., a student at Maple Elementary School, sued Hesperia Unified School District (HUSD), alleging he was sexually assaulted on campus by a school janitor. X.M. sought treble damages under Civil Procedure Code Section 340.1 (Section 340.1), claiming his assault was a result of the school’s cover-up of a prior sexual assault by the same janitor. The trial court granted HUSD’s motion to strike the increased damages request on the grounds that treble damages under Section 340.1 are punitive and barred by Government Code Section 818 of the Government Tort Claims Act (Section 818). Section 340.1 was amended in 2019 to increase the time allowed for plaintiffs to sue public agencies for childhood sexual assault and allow for treble damages when the defendant covered up prior childhood sexual assault and the plaintiff was subsequently sexually assaulted.
X.M. filed a petition to vacate the trial court’s order, arguing that sovereign immunity does not apply because the primary purpose of the provision is to compensate victims of childhood sexual assault. The question before the Court of Appeal was whether the sovereign immunity provision in Section 818, which bars public agencies from paying punitive damages, applies to victims of childhood sexual assault from recovering treble damages under Section 340.1.
The Court explained that the hallmark of punitive damages is the determination of what amount will be sufficient to punish the defendant and deter future misconduct. The Court of Appeal interpreted Section 818 and held that the goals of both punishment and determent of punitive damages are not advanced if the defendant is a public agency because damages against a public agency only punish unknowing taxpayers, who took no part in the wrongdoing.
The Court of Appeal explained that treble damages are generally punitive in nature and are not meant to compensate plaintiffs for damages. Section 340.1 allows plaintiffs to recover for damages caused by childhood sexual abuse against the abuser and defendants who are responsible for the actions of the abuser. Section 340.1 allows for treble damages when a defendant covers up a minor’s sexual abuse, and the cover-up resulted in subsequent sexual assault of the plaintiff, “unless prohibited by another law.” The Court of Appeal stated that the clause “unless prohibited by another law” recognizes that treble damages may not be available in every instance.
The Court of Appeal held that Section 340.1’s treble damages provision is punitive. First, the statute allows for damages three times the plaintiff’s actual damages if the plaintiff proves the sexual assault was a result of the defendant’s cover-up of previous sexual assault. Second, treble damages can only be rewarded by a judge or jury, who will consider relevant factors specific to the defendant. The Court of Appeal explained these are common traits of punitive damage provisions in other statutes, and the primary purpose of Section 340.1 is to punish and deter defendants from engaging in future misconduct.
The Court of Appeal rejected X.M.’s argument that compensation is the primary purpose of the treble damages provision. The Court of Appeal stated that nothing in the legislative history of the 2019 amendment indicates compensation was the primary purpose of the changes to Section 340.1. The Court of Appeal explained the legislative history suggests the reason behind extending the statute of limitations was to allow more victims to be compensated for their injuries, and nothing in the materials indicates the same reasoning was behind the treble damages provision. The Court of Appeal further noted the law is already designed to fully compensate victims of childhood sexual assault for pain and suffering, including physical and emotional damages. However, punitive damages are not intended to compensate plaintiffs for pain and suffering.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeal denied X.M.’s petition to seek treble damages because public agencies are immunized from punitive damages under Section 818.
X.M. v. Superior Court of San Bernardino Cty. (2021) 68 Cal.App.5th 1014.