March 17, 2010

Federal Judge Tosses $100 Million Punitive Damages Award Against BP

In December of last year we reported on a jury's award of $100 million in punitive damages to ten workers who claimed they were exposed to toxic fumes at a BP plant in Galveston. We noted that the award was not likely to hold up because of the absurdly high ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages.

As it turns out, we were correct that the award wouldn't hold up, but the ratio issue never came into play. The Associated Press is reporting that the trial judge (U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt) has ruled that the plaintiffs are not entitled to any punitive damages in this case. According to the story, Judge Hoyt has issued a posttrial ruling stating that the plaintiffs failed to present clear and convincing evidence that BP acted with intent to harm or engaged in gross negligence, and plaintiffs are therefore entitled to no punitive damages.

I have no evidence to back this up, but my sense is that judges are more inclined to do this sort of thing (toss out a punitive damages award altogether) when the amount of the award is obviously excessive. Thus, even if they don't reach the issue of excessiveness, they are influenced by the size of the award. Maybe it's just because an obviously excessive award is a clear indication that something went awry during the jury's deliberative process.

UPDATE: California appellate specialist Donna Bader has posted some commentary about this story on her Appeal to Reason Blog. She writes:

Some will celebrate this reduction as a victory for companies. Those
who do so may believe that individual plaintiffs should not be entitled to
punitive damages at all or that the award just seems like a lot of money. Others
will despair, as this case is just one of many where judges have reduced
punitive damages - ignoring the jury’s verdict - until they do nothing to punish
wrongdoers. As stated by plaintiff’s attorney, the decision gives BP a “free pass” to
continue hurting its workers.
Personally, I don't see this case a victory for companies. Nor do I see it as a cause for despair because a trial judge has ignored a jury's verdict. Instead, I presume that the judge honestly concluded that the plaintiffs in this particular case had failed to introduce evidence to satisfy the legal standard for imposing punitive damages. That type of post-verdict review is an integral part of our justice system; trial and appellate judges are not supposed to reflexively accept any result reached by a jury, even if that result is unsupported by the evidence. In particular, judicial review of punitive damages awards has existed as a safeguard for as long as punitive damages have been awarded. (See, e.g., Huckle v. Money (C.P. 1763) 2 Wils. 205, 95 Eng. Rep. 768.) Sometimes that review works in favor of a defendant (corporate or otherwise), and sometimes it doesn't.