Court of Appeal upholds $50,000 punitive damages award in employment case (Cordero v. Catwalk to Sidewalk, Inc.)

In this unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeal (Second District, Division One) upholds a jury’s award of $160,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages in a case involving claims of disability discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the opinion, except that the amount of punitive damages is modest for a California jury.

Georgia Supreme Court upholds constitutionality of cap on punitive damages

The Georgia Supreme Court issued an opinion this week upholding the constitutionality of a Georgia statute that caps most punitive damages awards at $250,000.  Application of the cap in this case resulted in a reduction from $50 million to $250,000.   One justice dissenting, arguing that the cap violates the right to a jury trial in the Georgia Constitution.

As regular readers of this blog are well aware, no such cap exists in California.

Texas jury awards $500 million in punitive damages to woman who sat down on railroad tracks while intoxicated and was struck by a train

Railway Age reports on a Texas state court verdict that awarded a woman $57 million in compensatory damages and $50o million in punitive damages against Union Pacific railroad.  According to the story, the plaintiff was intoxicated and sat down on the railroad tracks at a crossing that had a functional warning system.  UP’s statement on the verdict says that train crew saw the plaintiff sitting in the tracks, blew the horn on the train, and activated the train’s emergency brakes, but were unable to stop the train in time to avoid hitting the plaintiff.  UP’s statement also says that the punitive damages will be capped at $20 million under Texas law.

North Carolina jury awards $140 million in punitie damages in trademark suit against Vivint Smart Home

Law360 (subscription required) reports that a jury in federal district court in North Carolina has awarded $49.7 million in compensatory damages and $140 million in punitive damages in a lawsuit between rival home security companies.  Plaintiff CPI Security Systems claims that defendant Vivint Smart Home infringed its trademarks and tricked customers into switching security providers.  The Law360 story includes a link to the verdict form. Vivint says it plans to appeal.

Florida Supreme Court holds that $16 million punitive award is excessive where ratio exceeded 160 to 1, rejecting plaintiffs’ argument for higher ratios in wrongful death cases (Coates v. RJ Reynolds)

The Florida Supreme Court issued this opinion yesterday, addressing a question that often arises in California punitive damages litigation.  The case involved a punitive damages award in a wrongful death case.  The $16 million award was more than 106 times greater than the compensatory damages recovered by the plaintiffs, who were the statutory heirs of the decedent.  The Florida intermediate appellate court found the award was excessive, but the plaintiffs sought Supreme Court review, arguing that the award should be compared not to the magnitude of their loss, but to the loss suffered by the decedent, i.e., the value of the decedent’s life.

The Florida Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument, agreeing with the intermediate appellate court and ruling that, for purposes of excessiveness analysis, a reviewing court should compare a wrongful death punitive damages award only to the compensatory damages recovered by the plaintiff, not to the harm suffered by the decedent.

Texas court rules that punitive damages award against Alex Jones is not subject to cap

We reported over the summer that the $45.2 million punitive damages award against Alex Jones would be capped at $750,000 under Texas law.  Perhaps we spoke too soon.

According to The New York Times, the judge in that case decided not to apply the cap because the she questioned its constitutionality and viewed the claim as  “a rare case” in which the emotional damage inflicted on the plaintiffs was so severe that “I believe they have no recourse.” That description of the court’s ruling doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because it mixes up the concepts of compensatory damages (designed to provide recourse for injuries) and punitive damages (designed to punish and deter bad conduct).

In a more typical case, such a ruling would likely lead to an appeal.  But that may never happen here, because NPR reports that Alex Jones has filed for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy filing was prompted not only by the Texas case, but also by a Connecticut case in which a jury awarded $965 million in compensatory damages and a judge later added $473 million in punitive damages.

Los Angeles jury awards $11.3 million in punitive damages in mesothelioma case

A jury in Los Angeles awarded $11.3 million in punitive damages, on top of $40.8 million in compensatory damages, against cosmetics manufacturer Avon and forklift maker Hyster, according to this press release issued today by the plaintiff’s law firm.  The plaintiff claims that she developed mesothelioma after using Avon products which, she contends, contained talc that was contaminated with asbestos.  She also attributes her mesothelioma to exposure to asbestos fibers that her husband brought home on this clothing from his work with asbestos-containing forklift brakes and clutches.

Ninth Circuit rules that district court cut punitive damages too much in Volkswagen emissions case (Riley v. Volkswagen)

Last month the Ninth Circuit issued this rather surprising published opinion, holding that a district court went too far when it reduced a punitive damages award to four times the compensatory damages award.  The Ninth Circuit decided that the maximum constitutionally permissible ratio was actually eight to one.

The case involved the well publicized Volkswagen emissions scandal.  Plaintiffs bought Volkswagens and Audis and later discovered that the vehicles had been modified so that they would pass emissions testing even though the vehicles actually produced emissions in excess of regulatory standards.  It was undisputed that the plaintiffs suffered no physical harm from the increased emissions.  But they sought recovery for having been duped into buying a vehicle they thought was eco-friendly but wasn’t.

The district court viewed Volkswagen’s harm as worthy of punitive damages, but found it to be relatively low on the reprehensibility scale.  The Ninth Circuit disagreed, finding that Volkswagen’s conduct was “highly reprehensible,” warranting a ratio closer to the high-end of the single digit ratio scale.  That conclusion is surprising, because courts ordinarily place economic torts at the low end of the spectrum.  Putting this conduct at the high end of the scale does not leave much room between this economic tort and the classic punitive damages case involving someone who acts with malice or puts someone else’s life at risk.  Publication of this opinion will make it easy for plaintiffs in the Ninth Circuit to argue that just about every punitive damages case warrants a ratio of eight to one.

Supreme Court of California denies review in McNeal v. Whittaker, Clark & Daniels (with one vote to grant review)

In July we reported on the reversal of a $3 million punitive damages award in McNeal v. Whittaker, Clark & Daniels, and commented on the significance of the decision for products liability litigation in California.  The Supreme Court this week denied the plaintiffs’ petition for review.  But as noted on At the Lectern, Horvitz & Levy’s blog on all things related to the Supreme Court of California, Justice Goodwin Liu voted to grant the petition.

Georgia Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of state cap on punitive damages

Law36o reports on yesterday’s oral arguments before the Georgia Supreme Court in a case in which the plaintiff is challenging a statutory cap that reduced a jury’s $50 million punitive damages award to $250,000.  As we have reported before, such arguments have achieved mixed results, with some courts upholding the constitutionality of statutory caps and some courts striking them down.

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