September 21, 2009

Montana Supreme Court Reverses Punitive Damages Award; Trial Court Excluded Evidence of Regulatory Compliance

Although this blog is generally California-centric, last week we reported on an interesting out-of-state opinion, and here's another one. In Malcolm v. Evenflo, a products liability action against a manufacturer of child seats, the Montana Supreme Court reversed a $3.7 million punitive damages award because the trial court wrongly excluded evidence that the defendant complied with federal safety standards.

Some readers may think this is a no-brainer. After all, if a jury is being asked to decide whether a manufacturer acted with reckless disregard towards the safety of its consumers, the jury should at least be allowed to consider the fact that the defendant complied with all applicable safety regulations, right? Well, at least two Montana Supreme Court justices didn't see it that way.

Two justices dissented from this opinion, taking the position that a defendant's compliance with safety regulations is not relevant to the issue of punitive damages, and would only confuse and mislead the jury. The dissent recites in detail all of the plaintiffs' evidence in support of their claim for punitive damages. That evidence, as described by the dissent, certainly makes the defendant look bad. But even if the weight of the evidence favored the plaintiff, it seems to me that the defendant should have at least been allowed to present its evidence to the jury.