April 17, 2009

Cal. Supreme Court Requests Supplemental Briefing in Roby v. McKesson

The California Supreme Court has asked the parties in Roby v. McKesson to address the following question:

Are the jury's compensatory damages verdicts so ambiguous as to
whether there is overlapping recovery as to require a remand to the trial
court for a new trial limited to determining the amount of compensatory and
punitive damages?

Roby has been pending before the California Supreme Court since April 2007. The issues before the court are primarily questions of employment law, but they also include a punitive damages issue. Specifically, the petitioner contends that the Court of Appeal erred when it determined that a $15 million punitive damages award was excessive and ordered the award reduced to $2 million, roughly 1.4 times the compensatory damages. The question that the Supreme Court is now posing suggests that the court may order a new trial in that case without deciding the punitive damages issue.

A very similar issue is also before the California Supreme Court in Buell-Wilson v. Ford. In that case, the Court of Appeal took the opposite approach from Roby; the court refused to reduce a punitive damages award to a 1-to-1 ratio, notwithstanding the U.S. Supreme Court's admonition in State Farm v. Campbell that a 1-to-1 ratio may be the outer limit in cases involving substantial compensatory damages. The defendant petitioned for review on that issue.

There is a chance, however, the California Supreme Court won't address this issue in Buell-Wilson either. As we have noted, the plaintiff in Buell-Wilson has moved to dismiss review based on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to dismiss certiorari in Williams III.

Interestingly, the lawyer who represents the defendant in Roby also represents the plaintiff in Buell-Wilson. He may find himself on opposite sides of the same issue if the Supreme Court actually hears both cases on the merits. He will probably have to argue that, even though both cases involve substantial compensatory damages, the facts of Buell-Wilson permit a ratio in excess of 1-to-1 while the facts of Roby do not.