Court of Appeal: Wrongful Termination Alone Insufficient for Punitive Damages Liability

Scott sued her employer, Phoenix Schools, for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. A jury awarded her damages, including punitive damages. The Court of Appeal upheld the verdict for wrongful termination and the compensatory damages, but reversed on the punitive damages claim:

Thus, in order to sustain the punitive damages award, the evidence must leave no substantial doubt that Phoenix engaged in despicable conduct, or conduct intended to cause injury to Scott. “‘Something more than the mere commission of a tort is always required for punitive damages. There must be circumstances of aggravation or outrage, such as spite or “malice,” or a fraudulent or evil motive on the part of the defendant, or such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that his conduct may be called wilful or wanton.’ [Citation.]” (Taylor v. Superior Court (1979) 24 Cal.3d 890, 894-895, italics omitted.) The only evidence of wrongful conduct directed toward Scott was her termination for an improper reason. This evidence was insufficient to support a finding of despicable conduct, because such action is not vile, base or contemptible.
So, a wrongful termination in violation of public policy, without additional evidence of malice, is not enough to sustain an award of punitive damages.

The case is Scott v. Phoenix Schools and the opinion is here.