June 25, 2014

West Virginia Supreme Court reduces $80 million punitive damages award to $32 million (Douglas v. Manor Care, Inc.)

The West Virginia Supreme Court issued an opinion last week in a long-pending appeal involving an $80 million punitive damages verdict.

The case involved allegations that the defendant's nursing home was chronically understaffed, resulting in the neglect and ultimately the death of an 87-year-old patient.  The jury awarded $11.5 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages, for a ratio of roughly 7 to 1.

In the defendant's appeal, a majority of the West Virginia Supreme Court agreed that some of the plaintiff's causes of action should have been dismissed as a matter of law.  The majority therefore vacated those claims, resulting in a reduction of the compensatory damages from $11.5 million to $4.6 million.

The majority then concluded that, to preserve the jury's 7-to-1 ratio, the punitive damages should be reduced from $80 million to $32 million.  The court went on to assess whether the $32 million was excessive under state law or federal constitutional standards, and concluded it was not.

It's interesting that the court assumed as a foregone conclusion that a reduction of the compensatory damages award automatically required a reduction of the punitive damages.  Our courts in California haven't always seen it that way.  In fact, our courts have issued conflicting opinions about whether a reduction in compensatory damages by itself requires a reduction of a related punitive damages award.  Thus far, our Supreme Court has not shown an interest in resolving that split.   

Related posts:

A potpourri of recent eight-figure punitive awards against medical care providers