This unpublished opinion reverses a trial court’s ruling that a plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to warrant a jury instruction on punitive damages.

A tenant at the municipal airport in Fullerton got into a dispute with the city over the extension of its lease.  The tenant vacated the premises and, in the process, removed not only furniture but also cabinetry, windows, walls, sliding glass doors, a staircase, and plumbing fixtures. The city sued for conversion and sought punitive damages, but the trial court refused to instruct the jury on the issue of punitive damages, concluding that the city had failed to present any evidence of malice.

The Court of Appeal (Fourth District, Division Three) reversed, holding that even without any direct evidence of malice, a jury could infer malice from the tenant’s conduct.  The court acknowledged that a jury might conclude that the tenant’s actions were the result of mere negligence or an honest mistake about the lease’s requirement to return the premises to their pre-lease condition.  But the court said a jury might also infer that the tenant intentionally removed or destroyed the property with malice in retaliation for the City’s refusal to extend the lease.

The court’s analysis is in tension with published cases holding that punitive damages, because they are subject to the clear and convincing standard of proof, require evidence that is inconsistent with the possibility of mere negligence or honest mistake.  See, for example, Food Pro v. Farmers Insurance Exchange.  This opinion does not mention or attempt to distinguish that line of authority.