Last week the California Supreme Court issued this opinion adopting a broad interpretation of a California statute that exempts public entities from punitive damages.

Government Code section 818 provides that public entities cannot be held liable for damages imposed “primarily for the same of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”  That statute clearly applies to punitive damages, but what about other statutory provisions that provide double or treble damages for certain types of misconduct?

Previous Supreme Court decisions had suggested that section 818 applies only to damages that are “simply and solely punitive.” Under that view, public entities could be liable for double or treble damages under a statute that is designed to punish but also to serve some other purpose, e.g., incentivize lawsuits, provide redress for otherwise uncompensated harms or expenditures, or advance some other policy goal.  But the Supreme Court overruled that line of authority, concluding that section 818 bars any form of damages that is imposed primarily for punishment, even if the statute also has some other secondary purposes.