August 18, 2011

Bullock v. Philip Morris Court of Appeal opinion affirms 16:1 punitive damages

We've blogged many times about the saga of the Bullock v. Philip Morris case, which has bounced up and down through the California trial and appellate court system for a while now. Most recently, we reported on the second jury verdict (on remand after the judgment on the first jury verdict was reversed). That 2009 verdict reflected the finding that $13.8 million was the appropriate amount of punitive damages to award on account of harm to a plaintiff who, a prior jury had found, suffered $850,000 in actual damages. As we noted, the resulting judgment allows for a greater than 16:1 ratio between punitive and compensatory damages.

The Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Three) yesterday affirmed the judgment in a divided opinion. Justice Croskey, writing for the majority, acknowledged that, when "substantial" compensatory damages are awarded, there is a presumption of unconstitutionality as to punitive awards exceeding a single-digit ratio (in comparison to the compensatory damages) to a significant degree. (See opn., fn. 18.) However, he concluded that a departure from a single-digit ratio was acceptable because, in his view, an $850,000 compensatory award is not "substantial" within the meaning of United States Supreme Court jurisprudence, when the award is viewed in light of the defendant's financial condition.

Justice Kitching, dissenting, pointed out that those two concepts have not previously been linked. In fact, in many cases around the country, considerably smaller compensatory awards against very well-heeled companies have been deemed "substantial" within the meaning of the due process principles set out by the United States Supreme Court, and have triggered reversal or reduction of punitive awards that exceed single-digit ratios. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Bullock opinion, and whether other courts will similarly veer off in this new direction for punitive damages jurisprudence.