California Supreme Court holds private plaintiffs seeking restitution under the Unfair Competition Law may not treble their recovery under Civil Code section 3345

In Clark v. Superior Court (National Western Life Ins. Co.), a group of senior citizens sued an insurance company under California’s unfair competition law (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.), alleging deceptive sales of high-commission annuities with large “early surrender” penalties, and seeking restitution to the plaintiff class of money spent to purchase the annuities.  Plaintiffs also sought trebling of the restitution award under Civic Code section 3345, which allows the trier of fact to award senior citizens and disabled persons up to three times an amount imposed by statute as a “fine, or a civil penalty or other penalty, or any other remedy the purpose of effect of which is to punish or deter.”

The Court of Appeal held that the plaintiffs were entitled to seek a trebling of the restitution award under section 3345 because that award had a deterrent effect.  The Supreme Court reversed, holding that: “Because restitution in a private action brought under the unfair competition law is measured by what was taken from the plaintiff, that remedy is not a penalty and hence does not fall within the trebled recovery provision of Civil Code section 3345, subdivision (b).”

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