Whether punitive damages are available for violations of various labor code provisions has been something of an open question in California. You may recall, for instance, that a jury found against Wal-Mart in the matter of Savaglio v. Wal-Mart, awarding $172 million to the class members, including $115 million in punitive damages. In that particular case, after Wal-Mart argued that punitive damages amounted to a penalty on a penalty, Judge Ronald Sabraw rejected the argument that meal and rest break premiums were penalties. That particular finding was later confirmed as the correct interpretation in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1094. In any case, without clear guidance on the question, it has seemed prudent to at least request punitive damages for such violations and let a Court say that they weren't recoverable.
Yesterday, however, a Court of Appeal approached this issue from a different perspective. In Brewer v. Premier Golf Properties (December 3, 2008) the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate Distirct, Division One) reviewed, among other things, whether a punitive damage award for violation of various Labor Code sections was valid. The Brewer Court concluded that punitive damages are not available for several violations of the Labor Code:
“We are convinced, both by application of the "new right-exclusive remedy" doctrine and under more general principles that bar punitive damages awards absent breach of an obligation not arising from contract, punitive damages are not recoverable when liability is premised solely on the employer's violation of the Labor Code statutes that regulate meal and rest breaks, pay stubs, and minimum wage laws.
(Slip op., at pp. 10-11.) The Brewer case was an individual action, but it is covered here because of the significant impact on many wage & hour class actions. If you are curious about the "new right-exclusive remedy" doctrine, take a look at Rojo v. Kliger (1990) 52 Cal.3d 65.
It is worth noting that Savaglio remains on appeal and may ultimately affect this area of law. However, Savaglio has been stayed pending the outcome in Brinker, so it will be several years before that case moves forward.