January 9, 2012

A big year for big verdicts: the top punitive damages awards of 2011

A majority of states have adopted statutory caps on punitive damages, but the verdicts of 2011 showed us that colossal punitive damages awards are still alive and well in the rest of the U.S., especially in California.

Top 10 California punitive damages verdicts of 2011

By my count, these were the top 10 punitive damages awards of the year in California:

1.  $85 million against Mattel.
2.  $65 million against Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center.
3.  $50 million against Ford.
4.  $30 million against Actelion.  
5.  $20 million against Kaiser-Gypsum (reduced to $4 million after post-trial motions).
6.  $19 million against Stonebridge Life Insurance (reduced to $350k after post-trial motions).
7.  $15.6 million against Johnson & Johnson.
8.  $15.4 million against Pentel.
9.  $13.5 million against ArvinMeritor and Pneumo Abex.
10. $2.5 million against Jon Peters.

That's a total of $306 million in punitive damages just for these 10 cases.

Top 5 U.S. punitive damages verdicts of 2011

The California numbers are impressive, but our top verdict of the year, the $85 million verdict against Mattell, doesn't even make the top five on the list of the biggest punitive damages awards in the U.S. in 2011:

1.  $150 billion (Texas)
2.  $1 billion (Maryland)
3.  $300 million (vacated on post-trial motions) (Mississippi)
4.  $200 million (Virginia)
5.  $162.5 million  (Nevada)

As the notations above indicate, some of these mega-awards have already been tossed out.  Most of the others will probably meet the same fate.  But 2011 showed that the reversal of such awards on appeal is no sure thing, even in California.  In the few years prior to 2011, our courts were regularly chopping these awards down to size, following the U.S. Supreme Court's statement in State Farm that the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages should not exeed one to one, in cases where the compensatory damages themselves are "substantial."  But in 2011 we saw some backsliding on that issue, with several courts upholding some very large awards, with ratios in excess of 1 to 1, despite the presence of substantial compensatory damages:

$13.8 million (ratio of 16 to 1)
$7 million (ratio of 2.75 to 1)
$4.7 million (ratio of 2.35 to 1)
$2.8 million (ratio of 1.75 to 1)
$1 million (ratio of 2 to 1)

The California Supreme Court declined review in all of these cases, so this list, unlike the others above, represents final payable judgments.

All the numbers in this post are based on a review of our blog posts from 2011.  Perhaps there are some other verdicts and decisions that should be listed, but somehow escaped our attention during the year.  If anyone sees something we missed that should have made these lists, let us know, and we will update the lists accordingly.