June 4, 2008

Plaintiffs in "Rocky Flats" Case Don't Expect to Collect on $200 Million Punitive Damages Award

This story from the Rocky Mountain News reports that plaintiffs who won a massive judgment against Dow Chemical and Rockwell International (see our prior posts here and here) don't expect to collect any of it. Said one of the plaintiffs, "I'm realistic. If you got a dollar you'd be lucky. You don't count on it."

The plaintiffs' skepticism is warranted. In our experience, appellate courts heavily scrutinize these kind of jackpot awards. Often, a close review of the record in these cases indicates that the awards lack a solid legal foundation, and that the large award is more a reflection of the passions and emotions of the jurors than any legitimate legal basis. I certainly don't have any data to back this up, but it seems that awards of this size have a greater likelihood of being vacated altogether (as opposed to merely being reduced), whereas more modest awards are more likely to survive appellate scrutiny. That's true in most jurisdictions anyway, but perhaps not in West Virginia.