Taylor v. Superior Court

Citation24 Cal.3d 890,157 Cal.Rptr. 693,598 P.2d 854
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Decision Date21 August 1979
Parties, 598 P.2d 854 Cameron Charles TAYLOR, Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Respondent; Clair William STILLE, Real Party in Interest. L.A. 30940.
Miller, Glassman & Browning, Stephen D. Miller and Jerome M. Jackson, Beverly Hills, for petitioner

Robert E. Cartwright, San Francisco, Edward I. Pollock, Los Angeles, Leroy Hersh, San Francisco, Stephen I. Zetterberg, Claremont, Robert G. Beloud, Upland, Arne Werchick, San Francisco, William P. Camusi, Los Angeles, Ralph D. Drayton, Sacramento, and Leonard Sacks, Encino, as amici curiae on behalf of petitioner.

Wise & Nelson and Duane H. Timmons, Los Angeles, for real party in interest.


We consider whether punitive damages (Civ.Code, § 3294) are recoverable in a personal injury action brought against an intoxicated driver. As will appear, we have concluded that the act of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated may constitute an act of "malice" under section 3294 if performed under circumstances which disclose a conscious disregard of the probable dangerous consequences. Accordingly, we will issue a writ of mandate directing the trial court to reinstate that portion of the complaint which sought recovery of punitive damages.

Petitioner Taylor is the plaintiff in a civil action against defendant and real party Stille (and others) for damages arising from an automobile accident. Because the matter is presented to us following the sustaining of defendant's demurrer as to the prayer for punitive damages, the issues are The complaint further alleged that Stille had previously caused a serious automobile accident while driving under the influence of alcohol; that he had been arrested and convicted for drunken driving on numerous prior occasions; that at the time of the accident herein, Stille had recently completed a period of probation which followed a drunk driving conviction; that one of his probation conditions was that he refrain from driving for at least six hours after consuming any alcoholic beverage; and that at the time of the accident in question he was presently facing an additional pending criminal drunk driving charge.

framed by the allegations of the complaint which we now examine. In pertinent part, the complaint alleged that the car driven by Stille collided with plaintiff's car, causing plaintiff serious injuries; that Stille is, and for a substantial period of time had been, an alcoholic "well aware of the serious nature of his alcoholism" and of his "tendency, habit, history, practice, proclivity, or inclination to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol"; and that Stille was also aware of the dangerousness of his driving while intoxicated.

In addition, the complaint averred that notwithstanding his alcoholism, Stille accepted employment which required him both to call on various commercial establishments where alcoholic beverages were sold, and to deliver or transport such beverages in his car. Finally, it is alleged that at the time the accident occurred, Stille was transporting alcoholic beverages, "was simultaneously driving . . . while consuming an alcoholic beverage," and was "under the influence of intoxicants."

Based upon the foregoing allegations, plaintiff asserted in his complaint that Stille "acted with a conscious disregard of Plaintiff('s) safety . . . ." In addition to compensatory damages, plaintiff sought $100,000 in punitive damages. Stille demurred to the complaint, contending that punitive damages could not be assessed against a negligent, intoxicated driver, at least in the absence of allegations to the effect that the driver actually intended to cause an accident or injury. The trial court sustained the demurrer to the complaint insofar as it sought recovery of punitive damages, and plaintiff thereupon filed the present mandate proceeding.

Although we rarely grant extraordinary relief at the pleading stage of a lawsuit, mandamus will lie when it appears that the trial court has deprived a party of an opportunity to plead his cause of action or defense, and when extraordinary relief may prevent a needless and expensive trial and reversal. (Coulter v. Superior Court (1978) 21 Cal.3d 144, 148, 145 Cal.Rptr. 534, 577 P.2d 669; Babb v. Superior Court, (1971) 3 Cal.3d 841, 851, 92 Cal.Rptr. 179, 479 P.2d 379.) Such a combination of circumstances is herein presented and, accordingly, we examine the propriety of the trial court's ruling in the light of applicable statutory and decisional law.

Section 3294 of the Civil Code authorizes the recovery of punitive damages in noncontract cases "where the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, express or implied . . . ." As we recently explained, "This has long been interpreted to mean that malice in fact, as opposed to malice implied by law, is required. (Citations.) The malice in fact, referred to . . . as animus malus, may be proved under section 3294 either expressly (by direct evidence probative on the existence of hatred or ill will) or by implication (by indirect evidence from which the jury may draw inferences). (Citation.)" (Bertero v. National General Corp. (1974) 13 Cal.3d 43, 66, 118 Cal.Rptr. 184, 201, 529 P.2d 608, 625.)

Other authorities have amplified the foregoing principle. Thus it has been held that the "malice" required by section 3294 "implies an act conceived in a spirit of mischief or with criminal indifference towards the obligations owed to others." (Ebaugh v. Rabkin (1972) 22 Cal.App.3d 891, 894, 99 Cal.Rptr. 706, 708; see Gombos v. Ashe (1958) 158 Cal.App.2d 517, 527, 322 P.2d 933; Stein, Damages and Recovery (1972) Nominal and Punitive Damages, § 186, at p. 369; Prosser, Law of Torts (4th ed. 1971) § 2, at Defendant's successful demurrer to the complaint herein was based upon plaintiff's failure to allege any actual intent of defendant to harm plaintiff or others. Is this an essential element of a claim for punitive damages? As indicated by Dean Prosser, courts have not limited the availability of punitive damages to cases in which such an intent has been shown. As we ourselves have recently observed, in order to justify the imposition of punitive damages the defendant " '. . . must act with the intent to vex, injure, or annoy, Or with a conscious disregard of the plaintiff's rights. (Citations.)' " (Italics added; Neal v. Farmers Insurance Exchange (1978) 21 Cal.3d 910, 922, 148 Cal.Rptr. 389, 395, 582 P.2d 980, 986, quoting from Silberg v. California Life Ins. Co. (1977) 11 Cal.3d 452, 462, 113 Cal.Rptr. 711, 521 P.2d 1103; accord, Seimon v. Southern Pac. Transportation Co. (1977) 67 Cal.App.3d 600, 607, 136 Cal.Rptr. 787; G. D. Searle & Co. v. Superior Court (1975) 49 Cal.App.3d 22, 122 Cal.Rptr. 218.)

pp. 9-10.) In Dean Prosser's words: "Where the defendant's wrongdoing has been intentional and deliberate, and has the character of outrage frequently associated with crime, all but a few courts have permitted the jury to award in the tort action 'punitive' or 'exemplary' damages . . . . (P) 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 [24 Cal.3d 895] disregard of the interests of others that his conduct may be called wilful or wanton." (Ibid., fns. omitted, italics added.)

The Searle court, speaking through Justice Friedman, after reviewing many of the earlier decisions, concluded that "The phrase Conscious disregard is sometimes used to describe the highly culpable state of mind which justifies an exemplary award. . . . (P) We suggest Conscious disregard of safety as an appropriate description of the Animus malus which may justify an exemplary damage award when nondeliberate injury is alleged." (Italics in original, p. 32, 122 Cal.Rptr. p. 225.) The Searle court likewise rejected suggestions in earlier cases that mere Reckless disregard or misconduct would be sufficient to sustain an award of punitive damages, because "The central spirit of the exemplary damage statute, the demand for evil motive, is violated by an award founded upon recklessness alone." (Ibid., fn. omitted; on the subject of recklessness as a basis for an award of punitive damages, compare Liodas v. Sahadi (1977) 19 Cal.3d 278, 284-285, 137 Cal.Rptr. 635, 562 P.2d 316; with Schroeder v. Auto Driveaway Co. (1974) 11 Cal.3d 908, 922, 114 Cal.Rptr. 622, 523 P.2d 662.)

We concur with the Searle observation that a conscious disregard of the safety of others may constitute malice within the meaning of section 3294 of the Civil Code. In order to justify an award of punitive damages on this basis, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant was aware of the probable dangerous consequences of his conduct, and that he wilfully and deliberately failed to avoid those consequences. (See Searle, supra, 49 Cal.App.3d p. 32, 122 Cal.Rptr. 218; Stein, supra, § 187, pp. 373-374.)

Relying on Gombos v. Ashe, supra, 158 Cal.App.2d 517, 322 P.2d 933, defendant asserts that historically the act of driving while intoxicated has never been considered "malice" under section 3294. In Gombos, plaintiff had alleged that defendant drove his car in a " 'highly reckless manner with absolute disregard and callous indifference to the rights and safety' " of others, in that he became "knowingly and wilfully intoxicated" despite his knowledge that his intoxication "rendered him physically unfit" to drive safely. Despite these allegations, the court held that ". . . it is quite apparent that such facts fall short of alleging malice in fact, express or implied. One who becomes intoxicated, knowing that he intends to drive his automobile on the highway, is of course negligent, and...

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