May 24, 2011

Colorado Supreme Court affirms $18 million punitive damages award

It's not often that a state supreme court affirms a blockbuster punitive damages award, but yesterday the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed a $39.6 million judgment in a personal injury action, including $18 million in punitive damages, in the case of Qwest Services Corp. v. Blood.  The plaintiff, a lineman for an electric utility, was injured during a climb on a wooden utility pole.  The 46-year-old pole was rotten and collapsed under the plaintiff's weight.  He sued the defendant, the company that owned of the pole, for failure to implement a routine pole inspection program.

The Colorado Supreme Court's opinion has three primary holdings:

1.  Colorado's punitive damages statute does not violate the Due Process Clause as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Philip Morris v. Williams; the statute does not suggest that a jury can or should award punitive damages to punish the defendant for harm to nonparties.

2.  The evidence was sufficient to support a punitive damages award against the defendant, because a reasonable jury could conclude that the defendant's failure to implement a pole inspection problem was "wilful and wanton" within the meaning of Colorado's punitive damages statute. 

3.  The amount of the award was not excessive under the three guideposts of BMW v. Gore because the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct was sufficient to support a punitive damages award that was less than the amount of compensatory damages.

Related posts:

Colorado Supreme Court to consider excessive punitive damages, despite statutory cap