July 22, 2014

Law professor Dan Markel shot to death in his home

We're saddened to report that law professor Dan Markel, who wrote frequently on the subject of punitive damages, was shot to death in his Florida home last Friday.  He was only 41 years old.  Apparently, the local police are treating the shooting as a homicide but have not yet identified any suspects.  Above the Law has more details.

Prof. Markel wrote a variety of thought-provoking pieces, many of which were discussed on this blog.  Indeed, this blog devoted far more attention to his writings than the work of any other legal academic.  See posts linked below.  He was a terrific legal scholar who will be sorely missed.

Related posts:

Yet more from Prof. Markel on taxing and deducting punitive damages awards

Two new law review articles on taxation of punitive damages

More from Prof. Markel on tax policy and punitive damages

NYT Op-Ed on taxing punitive damages

Prof. Dan Markel responds to criticism of law review article

"Taxing Punitive Damages"

New law review articles on punitive damages

Prof. Dan Markel previews article: "Taxing Punitive Damages"

"Through the Looking Glass: A Respose to Professor Dan Markel's Retributive Damages"

Commentary on Prof. Dan Markel's punitive damages theory

Forthcoming law review article: "How Should Punitive Damages Work?"

Dan Markel invites feedback on retributive damages article

Dan Markel's article on retributive damages

July 21, 2014

Surprise, surprise: RJ Reynolds plans to challenge Florida jury's $23.6 billion punitive damages award

Our readers have probably already seen the many news reports about a Florida' jury's award of $23.6 billion in punitive damages to a smoker's widow.  Not surprisingly, the Associated Press reports that defendant R.J. Reynolds plans to file posttrial motions and an appeal, if necessary, to fight the award as excessive and unconstitutional.

Also not surprising is that legal pundits are predicting the award is unlikely to stand.  "Unlikely" is a bit of an understatement.  There is no way that award can survive.  The more important question is whether the trial judge will reduce the award or order a new trial.  Some commentators are speculating about whether the trial judge or the appellate court will reduce the award to a single-digit multiplier of the compensatory damages award of $16.9 million. Given the enormous size of the award, however, R.J. Reynolds would seem to have a good argument for a complete new trial.  I expect they'll be arguing that the jury was obviously influenced by passion and prejudice, and that they are entitled to a new trial before an unbiased jury.

Related posts:

Florida jury awards $14 million in punitive damages to smoker's family

Florida jury awards smoker's family $22.5M in punitive damages

Florida appellate court reverses $79 million judgment in tobacco case
 
Florida appellate court reverses $40 million punitive damages award in tobacco case

Philip Morris wins sixth straight trial in Florida smoker litigation

Florida jury awards relatively modest punitive damages in smoker lawsuit

Another punitive damages award in Florida tobacco litigation

Florida jury awards $20 million in punitive damages to smoker's widow

Smoker's widow wins $12.5 million in punitive damages

Florida trial judge cuts $244 million punitive damages award

Florida jury awards $25 million in punitive damages to smoker's widow

"Smokers, tobacco, both winners in early Engle cases"

Jury rules for plaintiff in first phase of retrial after reversal of $145 billion punitive damages award

After reversal of $145 billion class action punitive damages award, Florida smokers seek punitive damages in individual suits

June 26, 2014

Pennsylvania judge awards $18 million in punitive damages to punish insurer for spending too much in defense fees

The Legal Intelligencer reports that a Pennsylvania judge has awarded $18 million in punitive damages in a long-running insurance bad faith case.  According to the article, the plaintiffs sued Nationwide for failing to properly repair their vehicle after an auto accident.

It sounds like the actual damages were slight and the harm was purely economic, but the judge apparently concluded that Nationwide acted in bad faith and engaged in malice by paying $1 million or more in attorney fees to its defense counsel, instead of just paying this small claim.  That doesn't seem like a proper basis for liability or punitive damages.  The question should be whether Nationwide's handling of the claim was reasonable, not how much Nationwide spent defending the subsequent litigation.  In California, case law prevents courts from imposing punitive damages based on a defendant's litigation conduct.

June 25, 2014

Missouri Court of Appeals affirms $80 million in punitive damages (Blanks v. Fluor)

The Missouri Court of Appeals last week issued an opinion addressing a $320 punitive damages verdict, one of the largest we have seen in recent years.  The opinion affirms $80 million in punitive damages against two defendants, while reversing a $240 million punitive damages award against a third defendant.  The compensatory damages totaled $38.5 million.

The opinion is 180 pages long, but in a nutshell, the court affirmed the two punitive damages awards based on its conclusion that the defendants, who operated a smelter, acted with extreme reprehensibility when they knowingly disregarded the risk that the smelter would cause lead poisoning to the children nearby residents.  The court reversed the punitive damages against the third defendant due to an error in the jury instructions on issue of Missouri partnership law.  So the plaintiffs will have an opportunity to re-try that punitive damages claim, and they say they plan to do so.

The availability of punitive damages in maritime cases

Interested in punitive damages in maritime cases?  If so, check out this article by the folks at Blank Rome.  It summaries how the U.S. Supreme Court's 2009 decision in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend has created uncertainty about the availability of punitive damages in various types of maritime cases. 

Related posts:

Fifth Circuit grants rehearing to address availability of punitive damages in seaworthiness cases

Icicle Seafoods: cert. denied  

West Virginia Supreme Court reduces $80 million punitive damages award to $32 million (Douglas v. Manor Care, Inc.)

The West Virginia Supreme Court issued an opinion last week in a long-pending appeal involving an $80 million punitive damages verdict.

The case involved allegations that the defendant's nursing home was chronically understaffed, resulting in the neglect and ultimately the death of an 87-year-old patient.  The jury awarded $11.5 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages, for a ratio of roughly 7 to 1.

In the defendant's appeal, a majority of the West Virginia Supreme Court agreed that some of the plaintiff's causes of action should have been dismissed as a matter of law.  The majority therefore vacated those claims, resulting in a reduction of the compensatory damages from $11.5 million to $4.6 million.

The majority then concluded that, to preserve the jury's 7-to-1 ratio, the punitive damages should be reduced from $80 million to $32 million.  The court went on to assess whether the $32 million was excessive under state law or federal constitutional standards, and concluded it was not.

It's interesting that the court assumed as a foregone conclusion that a reduction of the compensatory damages award automatically required a reduction of the punitive damages.  Our courts in California haven't always seen it that way.  In fact, our courts have issued conflicting opinions about whether a reduction in compensatory damages by itself requires a reduction of a related punitive damages award.  Thus far, our Supreme Court has not shown an interest in resolving that split.   


Related posts:

A potpourri of recent eight-figure punitive awards against medical care providers

June 24, 2014

Florida jury awards $14 million in punitive damages to smoker's family

Here's the latest verdict in the on-going series of post-Engle tobacco trials in Florida.  The Palm Beach Post reports that a jury in West Palm Beach has awarded $14 million in punitive damages against R.J. Reynolds, in a lawsuit brought by the daughter of a smoker who died of lung cancer.  

The wide range of results in this cases is a stark illustration of the inherently arbitrary nature of punitive damages.  The plaintiffs' arguments for punitive damages in these cases are practically identical.  Many of the juries hearing these arguments have awarded no punitive damages, while other juries have awarded tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.  

Related posts:

Florida jury awards smoker's family $22.5M in punitive damages

Florida appellate court reverses $79 million judgment in tobacco case
 
Florida appellate court reverses $40 million punitive damages award in tobacco case

Philip Morris wins sixth straight trial in Florida smoker litigation

Florida jury awards relatively modest punitive damages in smoker lawsuit

Another punitive damages award in Florida tobacco litigation

Florida jury awards $20 million in punitive damages to smoker's widow

Smoker's widow wins $12.5 million in punitive damages

Florida trial judge cuts $244 million punitive damages award

Florida jury awards $25 million in punitive damages to smoker's widow

"Smokers, tobacco, both winners in early Engle cases"

Jury rules for plaintiff in first phase of retrial after reversal of $145 billion punitive damages award

After reversal of $145 billion class action punitive damages award, Florida smokers seek punitive damages in individual suits

June 23, 2014

Court of Appeal vacates punitive damages portion of default judgment for lack of financial condition evidence (Stutz Artiano v. Larkins)

This unpublished opinion is yet another reminder that in California, plaintiffs cannot obtain punitive damages without presenting meaningful evidence of the defendant's financial condition, even in the case of a default judgment.   

In this case, the plaintiff obtained a default judgment and, at a prove up hearing, presented evidence of its damages.  But it presented no evidence of the defendant's financial condition.  Accordingly, the California Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) ordered the trial court to strike the award of punitive damages from the judgment. 

June 13, 2014

New punitive damages blog analyzes case pending before en banc Ninth Circuit (Arizona v. Asarco)

Our friends at Mayer Brown have launched their own punitive damages blog, aptly titled Guideposts.  Mayer Brown has a deep bench of brilliant lawyers with extensive knowledge of punitive damages issues.  We've had the pleasure of collaborating with them on a number of punitive damages appeals in California and elsewhere. Welcome to the blogosphere!

Guideposts currently features a two-part series of posts addressing Arizona v. Asarco, which the Ninth Circuit has decided to review en banc.  In the first post, blogger Evan Tager argues that the Ninth Circuit should be analyzing the Title VII punitive damages award in that case under federal common law, not constitutional law (as the original three-judge panel did).  And he notes that federal appellate courts have considerably greater authority to regulate punitive damages under federal common law than they do under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. 

In the second post, he argues that the Ninth Circuit should reduce the Asarco award to something in the mid-five-figure range, to reflect that the defendant's conduct in that case was far less reprehensible than the acts of other defendants in other employment cases.  He argues that awards at the statutory maximum of $300,000 should be reserved for only the most egregious wrongdoing.
 
Related posts:

Ninth Circuit grants en banc rehearing to decide excessiveness of punitive damages in Title VII case (Arizona v. Asarco)

Ninth Circuit reduces $300,000 punitive damages award to $125,000 in Title VII harassment case (Arizona v. ASARCO)  



 

May 14, 2014

Montana jury awards $240 million in punitive damages against Hyundai

The Associated Press reports that a jury in Montana has awarded $8.6 million in compensatory damages and $240 million in punitive damages against Hyundai in a manufacturing defect case.  The plaintiffs contend that a steering defect in a 2005 Hyundai Tiburon caused a crash resulting in the deaths of two teenage boys.  This punitive damages award doesn't seem likely to survive very long, in light of Montana's statutory cap limiting punitive damages to $10 million.