A California state appellate court has refused to alter or reduce an earlier decision to award $82.6 million in damages to a paraplegic who claimed faulty design caused her car to crash. The decision by San Diego’s Court of Appeals for the Fourth District came after the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered the state court to reconsider its original ruling. In that decision, the nation’s High Court held last year that jurors cannot punish defendants for harm to third parties when determining punitive damages.
Jurors in the case originally awarded Benetta Buell-Wilson more than $368 million in damages, with $246 million being punitive damages, against Ford Motor Co. In 2006, the Fourth District reduced the total award to $82.6 million, with $55 million consisting of punitive damages. This latest ruling affirmed that award, with the three justices unanimously saying there was nothing in the Philip Morris decision that warranted a change in their judgment. The justices wrote:
Based on our review of the record, plaintiffs’ counsel was not asking the jury to punish Ford for harm done to third parties. Rather, counsel was discussing the repeated nature of Ford’s actions in arguing the reprehensibility of Ford’s conduct. That argument was entirely proper and did not create a ‘significant risk’ the jury would punish Ford for injuries to third parties.
Buell-Wilson, a mother of two, was injured on January 19, 2002, when her 1997 Ford Explorer fishtailed as she tried to avoid a metal object and rolled over four times before coming to rest on its roof. The justices had found Ford’s conduct reprehensible on the first appeal. The California Supreme Court denied review, but the U.S. Supreme Court took the case and remanded it back to the Fourth District for further review.
In its latest ruling, the California appeals court listed several reasons why the High Court’s opinion in Philip Morris doesn’t compel a reversal or further reduction:
It’s the kind of [ruling] that ought to motivate automobile companies to make their cars safer and not do as Ford did with this vehicle. [The company made] some very tawdry cost-cutting decisions.
It will be interesting to see what happens if the U.S. Supreme Court again takes the case for review. Regardless, it is refreshing to see a state court do the right thing on the issue of corporate wrongdoing and punitive damages.
Source: The Recorder
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