In the recent case of Hill v. Superior Court, the Court of Appeals held that the Probate Code section 859 provision that authorizes courts to award double damages are not punitive or exemplary damages as the term is defined by Code of Civil Procedure section 3294. That Code of Civil Procedure section is a section that makes exceptions to awards against a decedent's successor-in-interest. The Court of Appeal pointed out that each side had only one case on point to argue in support of each side's respective position. The parties involved a petition by children who were co-executors against their stepfather for Probate Code section 859 damages. They were arguing that the stepfather wrongfully and in bad faith concealed assets belonging to the decedent's estate. The stepfather argued that CCP 3294 is an exception that bars double damages as "punitive damages." At the trial court level the stepfather prevailed on his argument, but was overturned on appeal as the double damages were determined not to be "punitive damages."
For those who are not probate law practitioners, under Probate Code section 859, if a person dies and that person's executor, trustee, beneficiary, or heir was to wrongfully and in bad-faith take or conceal money from the person who died (or was to take or conceal money from that person's trust or estate), then Probate Code section 859 allows for a potential award of double damages, attorney's fees and costs. This ruling made the distinction that such double damages could possibly be punitive in nature or may have a punitive effect but they are not "punitive damages" and thus do not fall within the CCP 3294 exception. A full copy of the Court of Appeal decisions can be found by clicking on the link below: