October 29, 2018

"Dallas judge preserves bulk of $242M verdict against Toyota"

The Dallas Business Journal reports on a ruling denying Toyota's motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict in a case in which a Texas jury awarded $29 million in compensatory damages and $213 million in punitive damages. 

October 24, 2018

Trial judge in Roundup case decides not to follow her tentative opinion, and reduces punitive damages award instead of vacating it

We previously reported that Judge Suzanne Bolanos, who is presiding over the Roundup trial that led to a $250 million punitive damages award, issued a tentative opinion indicating that she intended to vacate that award and order a new trial.  She decided not to vacate the award after all, but instead to reduce it from $250 million to $39.2 million, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The reduced amount is equal to the jury's award of compensatory damages. The plaintiff can either accept that reduction or reject it in favor of a new trial.

October 12, 2018

Trial judge likely to vacate $250 million punitive damages award against Monsanto in Roundup case

A few months ago we reported on the huge verdict against Monsanto in San Francisco, and we questioned whether the facts of this case could support an award of punitive damages.  It appears the trial judge has doubts as well.  Reuters reports that Judge Suzanne Bolanos has indicated she is likely to toss the verdict and grant a new trial. 


September 10, 2018

Court of Appeal affirms trial court's decision not to award punitive damages in bench trial (Williams v. Pep Boys)

The First Appellate District, Division Four, certified this opinion for partial publication, but the punitive damages discussion is unpublished.  That discussion is an interesting read anyway, especially for anyone involved in asbestos litigation.

J.D. Williams died of mesothelioma.  His children brought this lawsuit claiming their father's disease was caused by exposure to asbestos in a number of ways, including through his occasional use of asbestos-containing replacement brakes he purchased from The Pep Boys.  After a bench trial, the trial court found the Pep Boys liable and awarded compensatory damages, but rejected the plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages.  The plaintiffs appealed, challenging that ruling (and a few other rulings not relevant for our purposes).

On appeal, the plaintiffs cited other recent opinions that have affirmed punitive damages awards in asbestos cases, and argued that they had presented a "classic case" for punitive damages.  I.e., they offered evidence that the defendant sold asbestos-containing products, and that there was scientific information available at the time showing that asbestos could cause disease.  The Court of Appeal found those cases distinguishable for two primary reasons: (1) the plaintiffs failed to show that Pep Boys was actually aware of any dangers posed by its products at the time of Mr. Williams' alleged exposures, and (2) the trial court could reasonably conclude the defendant did not act with malice "because of the how the state of scientific knowledge regarding the risks of asbestos exposure evolved over time."

That second point is particularly interesting.  In the early days of California asbestos litigation, punitive damages claims were rare, because it was understood that scientific and medical information about asbestos-related diseases had evolved considerably between the time of exposures and the time of trial. But hindsight bias powerfully suggests that something that has in fact come to pass was foreseeable all along. For that reason, it has become all too easy in recent years for judges and jurors, especially those who are too young to remember a time when asbestos did not have the stigma it has today, to conclude that any company that used asbestos, at any time, had necessarily ignored a known health risk.  This opinion shows there's still at least a little resistance to that way of thinking in some corners of the California judicial system.

August 23, 2018

$4.69 billion talc verdict in Missouri heads towards appellate court

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that a Missouri trial judge has "affirmed" the $4.69 billion talc verdict against Johnson & Johnson.  It seems like a bit of a non-story.  Johnson & Johnson elected not to file post-trial motions, so the trial judge did not really affirm anything, he just entered judgment based on the jury's verdict.  J&J says it plans to appeal.

August 16, 2018

WSJ editorial blames Roundup verdict on junk science

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial yesterday entitled Round Up the Usual Lawyers, about the huge San Francisco jury verdict against Monsanto.  The editorial discusses the scientific evidence that Roundup does not cause cancer, and notes that the trial judge described the plaintiffs' punitive damages case as "thin."  Perhaps that means she will be inclined to grant Monsanto's post-trial motions and vacate the punitive award.

August 10, 2018

San Francisco jury awards $250 million in punitive damages against Monsanto

Law 360 reports that a jury today awarded $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages to a man who alleged he developed cancer as a result of exposure to Monsanto's  weedkillers, Roundup and Ranger Pro.

This is a hugely significant verdict.  As the article mentions, Roundup and Ranger Pro contain glyphosate, one of the most popular herbicides used around the world (over 290 million pounds were used in 2012).  The link between glyphosate and cancer was hotly disputed at trial.  Monsanto presented evidence that multiple epidemiological studies show no correlation between glyphosate and cancer, but the plaintiffs presented expert witnesses who testified that glyphosate can cause lymphoma.

Under California law, punitive damages are supposed to be awarded only when a defendant has consciously disregarded a "known" risk.  That means that punitive damages should not be imposed on a defendant for disregarding a speculative, theoretical risk.  If published peer-reviewed epidemiology  shows that a product does not cause cancer, and a defendant acts in reliance on those studies, that conduct does not meet the definition of malice under California.  But our courts have not always been consistent in applying this principles.  This case may prove to be a major indicator of the direction in which our courts are heading.

August 8, 2018

$4 billion punitive damages award against JPMorgan Chase reduced to $945,000

When we reported on the jury's $4 billion punitive damages award in this Texas probate case, we noted that the wildly excessive award could not survive judicial review.  Sure enough, the trial judge reduced the punitive damages from $4 billion to $945,000, per Courthouse News Service

Even the plaintiff's attorney recognized that the jury went overboard, and voluntarily asked the trial judge to cut the punitive award to $7.8 million. In comments to to Courthouse News, the plaintiff's attorney said that he and his client completely respect the judge's decision to reduce the award. 

August 7, 2018

North Carolina awards $450 million in punitive damages, but award is capped under state law

Associated Press reports (via WLOS.com) that a North Carolina jury last week awarded $23.5 million in compensatory damages and $450 million punitive damages in a nuisance case against Smithfield Foods, which operates a major hog farming operation near the plaintiffs' property.

If that sounds familiar, it's because we blogged about a very similar case a few months ago.

The $450 million number will be reduced under North Carolina law, which caps punitive damages at the greater of $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages.  The plaintiffs in the prior case challenged the constitutionality of that statute, but lost that argument

Tennessee appellate court vacates $28 million punitive damages award

The Daily News of Memphis reports that the Tennessee Court of Appeals has vacated a $28 million punitive damages award based on allegedly negligent care provided by a nursing home.

This case involved multiple defendants who got whacked for a collective award of $1.9 million in compensatory damages and $28 million in punitive damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed the finding of liability against one of the defendants, but found insufficient evidence to support liability as to the others.  The court then concluded that the punitive damages must be retried even as to the one defendant that was properly held liable, because the amount of the award was based partly on the conduct of the other defendants.