December 15, 2012

Florida Court of Appeal orders new trial on punitive damages claim against Philip Morris

We've mentioned this case (Naugle v. Philip Morris) a few times before.  Back in November 2009, a jury awarded $300 million, including $244 in punitive damages.  During the posttrial phase, the trial court reduced the total damages to less than 40 million.  And now the Florida Court of Appeal has ruled that the trial judge should have granted a new trial on damages instead of ordering a remittitur.  The appellate court reasoned that Philip Morris was entitled to a new trial based on the trial court's finding that the jury was motivated by passions, anger, and sympathy.

The California Supreme Court made a similar holding in Schelbauer v. Butler Manufacturing Co. (1984) 35 Cal.3d 442, 454, when it expressly disapproved the use of a remittitur as a means to cure legal error, holding that use of remittitur is "confined to cases in which an excessive damage award [is] the only error in the jury's verdict."

Last year Wyeth asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether a remittitur can be used to cure a verdict tainted by passion and prejudice, but Wyeth's petition was denied.

This case is part of the continuing fallout from the Florida Supreme Court's Engle decision reversing a $145 billion verdict in a class action against five tobacco defendants. Point of Law has a post summarizing the saga.