April 5, 2021

Court of Appeal orders new trial on punitive damages in conjunction with reallocation of fault (Putt v. Ford Motor Co.)

In this asbestos-injury case, a jury awarded approximately $8.5 million in compensatory damages and $25.5 million in punitive damages against Ford Motor Co. The trial court ruled the punitive damages were excessive and reduced the amount to $8.7 million.

Ford appealed and the Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Two) reversed in an unpublished opinion, finding that the jury’s allocation of fault could not be squared with the evidence. The jury allocated 100% of the fault to the one defendant remaining at trial (Ford), even though the evidence showed that the plaintiff used identical asbestos-containing products made by others. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial on the allocation of fault.

The Court of Appeal then concluded it should also order a new trial on the amount of punitive damages. The court reasoned that the jury in the first trial based its award of punitive damages on the assumption that Ford was 100 percent responsible for the plaintiff’s injury, but if the jury had apportioned fault based on the plaintiff’s proportional exposure to Ford products as compared to other defendants’ products, the jury would have assigned only 8 percent fault to Ford, possibly less. The court concluded that the possibility of a much smaller allocation to Ford weighed in favor of retrying the amount of punitive damages: “the potential for a jury to find that Ford's violation is of a substantially smaller magnitude counsels in favor of letting the jury on retrial evaluate the opprobrium of Ford's conduct in light of Ford's proportionate fault for plaintiff's injury rather than simply using the constitutional maximum as a back-end safety valve.”

Disclosure: Horvitz & Levy represents Ford in this case