March 15, 2010

California Jury Awards $50 Million in Punitive Damages Against Shell Subsidiary

This case has already gone up on appeal once, and is likely headed that way again.

In 2008 we blogged about this case, which involves a plaintiff who purchased a gas station from Shell subsidiary Equilon Enterprises and claims Equilon defrauded him by withholding material information. He claims that Equilon failed to tell him that the site of the gas station was about to become the target of state regulatory agencies, a fact that ultimately prevented him from being able to operate a gas station on the site.

When the case went to trial in 2006, the jury awarded the plaintiff $1.65 million in compensatory damages and found that Equilon acted with malice, oppression, or fraud. But the trial court dismissed the plaintiff's punitive damages claim because he failed to present meaningful evidence of the defendant's financial condition. The California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Eight) reversed, concluding that the trial court should have given the plaintiff more time to marshal his financial condition evidence.

According to the plaintiff's attorney's press release, a new jury has awarded $50 million in punitive damages. That makes for a ratio in excess of 30 to 1, a ratio that should not withstand posttrial and appellate scrutiny. Even assuming the defendant's conduct was extremely egregious, the defendant seems to have a strong argument that the maximum ratio cannot exceed one to one, given the size of the compensatory damages award and the purely economic nature of the plaintiff's injuries.

The appeal may also raise some interesting issues about the proper procedures for a trial like this, in which one jury decided the issues of liability and malice, and another jury awarded punitive damages. In such situations, it is difficult if not impossible to ensure that the second jury bases its punitive damages award solely on the same conduct that the first jury found to be tortious and malicious. If the plaintiff made multiple arguments in the first trial, the first jury may have accepted some of those arguments and rejected others. Unless the jury made very specific findings, however, there would be no way for anyone to know the precise basis for the first jury's findings, and therefore no way to comply with the requirement of California law that punitive damages must be based on malice, oppression or fraud in the conduct that gave rise to liability.