This published opinion addresses an issue of first impression: can an Elder Abuse plaintiff obtain a pretrial right to attach order (RTAO) based on a claim for punitive damages? The answer is no.
The Attachment Law (Code of Civil Procedure sections 481.010-493.060) is a set of statutes that allows plaintiffs, under certain narrow circumstances, to seize a defendant’s property in advance of trial and judgment. The law is generally limited to contract claims, but the remedy of pretrial attachment is also available for enforcement of certain statutes, including the Elder Abuse Act (Welfare & Institutions Code section 15600 et seq.)
The Court of Appeal held here that, although the Elder Abuse Act permits recovery of punitive damages, a plaintiff in such an action cannot obtain a pretrial RTAO based on an anticipated punitive damages award. The court explained that an RTAO must be based on a claim for “indebtedness,” which cannot include punitive damages because they are meant to punish and deter, not to satisfy a debt. The court also noted that the Attachment Law expressly contemplates the application of the preponderance of the evidence standard of proof, whereas punitive damages are governed by the higher clear and convincing evidence standard. Finally, the court noted that punitive damages always present a risk of arbitrary deprivation of property, and given the “less than fully developed record” presented in attachment proceedings, attachment orders based on claims for punitive damages would present too great a due process risk.