Punitive Damages Theory

Last October, I reported on the $8 billion punitive verdict returned by a Philadelphia jury against Johnson & Johnson in a case alleging that the company had failed to warn that its antipsychotic drug Risperdal could cause young men to develop breasts.

I expressed the view that a punishment of this size in an individual case is proof positive that the jury was animated by passion and prejudice and that a reduction of the punitive award would therefore be an inadequate remedy.

Regrettably, the trial court overlooked the fact that preposterous awards like this are indicative of a malfunctioning jury and instead merely reduced the punitive damages to $6.8 million—ten times the compensatory damages.
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Although the Supreme Court identified three guideposts for evaluating whether a punitive award is unconstitutionally excessive 23 years ago in BMW v. Gore and refined those guideposts 16 years ago in State Farm v. Campbell, lower courts continue to make conceptual errors interpreting and applying the guideposts. The Seventh Circuit will have the opportunity to address and rectify several such errors made by a district court in upholding a $3 million punitive award in Saccameno v. U.S. Bank National Association.
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Louisiana generally does not permit punitive damages. But if an accident happens on navigable waters, and the plaintiff brings a claim under federal maritime law, a Louisiana jury can award punitive damages, and Louisiana courts then must decide the full panoply of issues that arise in punitive damages cases.  That’s what happened in Warren v. Shelter Mutual Insurance Co.

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In Gomez v. Cabatic, the New York Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed the imposition of punitive damages in a medical malpractice case based on the defendant’s destruction of documents in an effort to avoid liability. But it ordered a remittitur of the large punitive award to $500,000—an amount equal to the compensatory damages.
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As my colleague Andy Frey and I reported in an earlier post, an Illinois federal jury in July returned a $150 million punitive verdict against AbbVie without awarding the plaintiff any compensatory damages.  That verdict is likely to be thrown out because Illinois does not permit punitive damages to be recovered in the absence of compensatory damages.

Now, less than three months later, another Illinois federal jury has imposed $140 million in punitive damages against AbbVie for the same alleged conduct—namely, failure to disclose that its low-T medication AdroGel can cause heart attacks. Even putting aside AbbVie’s other challenges to the verdict—which include attacks on the admission of expert testimony and the sufficiency of the evidence that the plaintiff’s heart attack was caused by his two months of AndroGel use—the punitive award is unlikely to stand because it is 1000 times the jury’s $140,000 compensatory award.
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Inevitably, when conscientious judges delve into the multi-dimensional issue of excessive punitive damages, they get some things right and other things wrong. Such is the case with the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in Daugherty v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC. Unfortunately, as a doctrinal matter at least, the erroneous aspects of the decision predominate.  
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