The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a $20.6 million verdict against Toys R Us Inc. The case involved the death of a 28-year-old woman who died using a Chinese pool slide that didn’t meet federal import requirements. The court held that the jury’s $18 million punitive damages award did not violate due process. Toys R Us failed to convince the appeals court that the trial court violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s prohibitions on excessive punishment against tortfeasors by allowing a punitive verdict that was almost seven times more than the amount of compensatory damages awarded by the jury to stand.
In its ruling, the appeals court said that Toys R Us demonstrated a “substantial degree of reprehensibility” by importing and selling close to 4,000 inflatable poolside slides from China that failed to meet federal consumer safety laws. This was true even though the products contained warning labels and user instructions indicating the products were noncompliant. Noting that punitive awards of up to 10 times the compensatory portion are generally permissible, the appeals court found that the verdict was in line with Massachusetts’s interest in punishing dangerous corporate conduct. On the damages issue, the court said in its opinion:
The jury’s award of punitive damages in this case, while perhaps higher than many such awards, cannot fairly be categorized as grossly excessive in relation to the commonwealth’s legitimate interests in condemnation and deterrence.
Toys R Us had argued that the $2.64 million compensatory verdict was “substantial” and should have lowered the range of punitive damages that could meet the constitutional requirements. The appeals court rejected this claim, noting that a higher ratio of punitive to compensatory damages may be appropriate when the value of a tort victims’ noneconomic loss is uncertain. And on that issue, the court stated:
Even if we were to agree with Toys R Us that the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages is high, the monetary value of the injury in a wrongful death action is undoubtedly difficult to determine. While $2,640,000 may be a substantial sum of money by many measures, its significance pales when viewed not as compensation for economic loss or emotional distress but for the loss of a young woman’s life.
Robin Aleo had suffered severe neck injuries, became a quadriplegic and subsequently died from the injuries. The case arose when a ToyQuest Banzai inflatable slide gave way as the woman was sliding headfirst into a below-ground pool. A jury found Toys R Us had negligently certified the product for importation despite federal regulations requiring that a slide be able to support a person weighing 350 pounds. The slide, which Toys R Us said was underinflated, was labeled as being able to support 200 pounds and collapsed while Ms. Aleo, a 140-pound woman, was using it.
The Supreme Judicial Court also agreed with the trial court’s exclusion of evidence that the slide was misused. The court affirmed the jury’s findings that Toys R Us was negligent and breached the implied warranty of merchantability. Those conclusions, according to the court’s opinion, were supported by evidence that the retailer understaffed its import compliance department and was indifferent to product safety because it believed it would not be financially liable for defects. The Plaintiffs are represented by Benjamin R. Zimmerman and W. Thomas Smith, who are with the Boston law firm Sugarman & Sugarman. Ben had this to say about the result in the case:
We are pleased that today’s decision upheld the finding of the jury, and recognized the tremendous and needless loss suffered by the Aleo family. It also sends a powerful message to toy retailers across the country that they have a responsibility to ensure the products they import and bring to market are safe for consumers.
This is an important decision for a number of reasons, one being the fact that many retailers of toy products are importing a significant percentage of the products they are selling in the U.S. The lawyers who handled this case did a very good job.
Sources: Andrew Scurria and Law360.com
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