In Los Angeles Unified School District v. Superior Court, the Supreme Court today broadens the protections given by a statute that exempts public entities from “damages imposed primarily for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.” The court overrules three past decisions in holding a school district cannot be liable for treble damages that a different statute generally allows to be recovered by childhood sexual assault victims who prove the assault “was as the result of a cover up.”

The court’s unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero says that the immunity statute — Government Code section 818 — not only covers “conventional[ ]” punitive damages, but “also captures other kinds of damages when they function, in essence, as awards of punitive or exemplary damages.” The court finds to be flawed its previous decisions — two in 1976 and one in 1991 — “insofar as [they] articulate a standard whereby the section 818 inquiry hinges on whether a damages provision is deemed simply and solely, or simply or solely, punitive.”

Treble damages against public entities are “not conclusive[ly]” barred by section 818, the court holds, but the “enhanced damages” under the childhood sexual assault statute — Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1(b)(1) — “function, in essence, as punitive or exemplary damages by serving ‘to punish past childhood sexual abuse coverups to deter future ones.’ ”

The court affirms the Second District, Division Three, Court of Appeal’s published opinion.