High court revisits punitive awards

Justices set aside $55 million damages in Ford rollover case

May 15, 2007|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Moving again to rein in large verdicts that punish companies, the Supreme Court set aside yesterday a San Diego jury's award of $55 million to penalize Ford Motor Co. for a rollover accident involving its popular Ford Explorer.

In a one-line order, the justices told a California state appeals court to reconsider the amount of the punitive verdict. The ruling does not affect the $28 million in compensatory damages that were awarded to the 51-year-old mother of two who was paralyzed after her sport utility vehicle rolled over in 2002.

Juries may award damages to compensate victims for wrongful injuries and may award additional money to punish the wrongdoer. But during the 1990s, the Supreme Court concluded that unrestrained punitive verdicts might violate the Constitution; since then, the justices have been searching for a way to limit such damages.

In February, they overturned a $79 million punitive verdict in favor of a deceased smoker from Oregon and ruled that it was unconstitutional to calculate the damages based on the harm suffered by other users of the same product. In that case, Philip Morris v. Williams, jurors were told that thousands of smokers had been deceived by cigarette industry advertising.

After losing in the California courts, Ford's lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court and argued that the jury in San Diego might have inflated its verdict after hearing that hundreds of people had been injured or killed in rollover accidents involving Broncos or Explorers.

"Indeed, this case presents an even more graphic example of improper punishment for alleged third-party harms than Philip Morris," Los Angeles lawyer Theodore J. Boutrous and his Washington partner Theodore B. Olson, representing Ford, said in their appeal.

The court took their suggestion and sent the Ford case back to a California court "for further consideration in light of Philip Morris v. Williams."

Although this falls short of an outright reversal, Boutrous said he was pleased.

"This trial was so infected with improper and irrelevant evidence about persons other than the plaintiffs, and California's standards for imposing punishment are so vague and inscrutable, we believe the Supreme Court's recent decision ... requires a new trial," Boutrous said yesterday.

But a lawyer for the accident victim said the jury's verdict was based on strong evidence that Ford had sacrificed safety for profits.

"I'm pretty confident the Court of Appeals will conclude their prior decision was correct, even in light of Philip Morris," said Dennis Schoville, a San Diego lawyer who represented Benetta Buell-Wilson.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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