The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed a punitive damages award arising out of a Tennessee case to stand. The case, Flax v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., involved a product liability claim. A substantial award of punitive damages in the case had been upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court in a detailed opinion. The Highest Court in the land recently denied the Defendant’s petition for a writ of certiorari to the High Court.
The tragic facts of the case need to be mentioned briefly. Joshua Flax, an eight-month old infant, was riding in a child’s safety seat in the right rear passenger seat of a 1998 Dodge Caravan in Davidson County, Tennessee, with his mother in the left rear passenger seat. The infant’s grandfather was driving the van, and another passenger was seated in the right front seat. The van was struck in the rear by a pickup truck that was traveling at an excessive speed. The velocity of the collision caused the backs of the seats of the mother, the grandfather, and the front seat passenger to yield rearward in a reclining position. The back of the head of the front seat passenger struck Joshua’s forehead, fracturing his skull and causing severe brain damage. As you may know, the seatback in cars is supposed to be a safety device and should help protect occupants. Joshua died the next day from his injuries.
During the trial, the experts for both parties testified that Joshua would not have been seriously injured if the seat in front of him had not yielded rearward. DaimlerChrysler asserted during the trial that the rearward yielding of the seats protected the occupants of the seats, that the seats exceeded government safety regulations, and that other automobile manufacturers utilized similar seats. The Plaintiffs produced a former employee of the carmaker at trial who testified that he was fired as a whistleblower because he investigated minivan seat safety problems in the mid-1990s.
A Nashville jury found that company was liable and awarded $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $98 million in punitive damages. The trial court reduced the punitive damages to $13,367,345 for the wrongful death of the infant and $6,632,655 in punitive damages to the mother on her negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. The Court of Appeals of Tennessee reversed both punitive damages awards. Subsequently, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the denial of punitive damages for the mother’s claim, but upheld the award of punitive damages on the wrongful death claim. Justice Holder, in her majority opinion, wrote that DaimlerChrysler had marketed the Dodge Caravan as a vehicle that placed safety first. It was stated in the opinion:
Not only did DCC fail to warn customers or redesign its product, DCC hid the evidence and continued to market the Caravan as a vehicle that put safety first. Because the jury’s verdict is supported by clear and convincing material evidence, we must affirm the jury’s finding of recklessness…. In addition, DCC deceitfully covered up evidence of the deficiencies of its seat design while simultaneously advertising the Caravan as a vehicle that put children’s safety first.
DaimlerChrysler argued to the Supreme Court that the award of punitive damages on the wrongful death claim was excessive and that the Trial Court violated the due process requirements by allowing the jury to consider harm to non-parties. They also argued that the award was not justified because the evidence did not support a finding of recklessness by the company.
The Tennessee Supreme Court held that the 1 to 5.35 ratio was acceptable in this case. Furthermore, the Court said a punitive damage award of $13,367,345 is consistent with the concept that the reprehensibility of a Defendant’s conduct is the most important part of the due process guideposts. The Court said the award was justified by DaimlerChrysler’s long-term pattern of conduct that resulted in severe injuries to the Plaintiffs and showed a conscious disregard for the safety of Tennessee citizens. It’s certainly significant that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear this case.
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