Constitutional Considerations in Florida Punitive Damages

Both compensatory and punitive damages may be awarded in Florida personal injury cases. Punitive damages receive a lot of attention in the news because they may be quite high in certain circumstances. They may be particularly high where the defendant is a multi-million dollar corporation and the defendant’s conduct is malicious, wanton or outrageous.

Recently, in a Florida appellate case, the tobacco company argued, among other things, that the punitive damages were both constitutionally excessive and tainted by the plaintiff’s reference to other tobacco companies.

The plaintiff in the case was the wife and personal representative of a deceased person who had died from lung cancer as a result of smoking. She filed suit against the tobacco company that had made his cigarettes, claiming negligence, strict liability, conspiracy to commit fraud and fraudulent concealment.

At trial, the plaintiff testified about her husband’s smoking history and how he believed smoking was safe until 1985 because he didn’t think tobacco companies would make a product that would kill people and specifically, he thought that the defendant’s brand had a filter design that was safer than other brands. By the time he tried to stop, he was unable to stop smoking because he was addicted.

The plaintiff also submitted the tobacco company’s deceptive statements upon which the decedent had relied to continue smoking until 1985. Years ago, the tobacco company had decided to fight the evidence that smoking was harmful, by starting a PR campaign rather than admitting to the scientific evidence regarding lung cancer. It also magnified the misrepresentations by joining with other tobacco companies in telling the public it would warn the public if it found cancer-inducing agents once it did it’s own research. As recently as the ’90s the head of the company had stated he didn’t think that cigarettes caused cancer, not that nicotine was addictive.

Ultimately, the jury found against the tobacco company for all the plaintiff’s causes of action, though they found the decedent partly at fault. They awarded the plaintiff $20 million in compensatory damages. They awarded $25 million in punitive damages.

The tobacco company moved for a new trial and for remittitur of the damages punitive damages. Lorillard moved for a new trial on several issues and also moved for remittitur (a ruling to lower damages) of the compensatory and punitive damages awards. The trial court denied these motions, except the motion to remit compensatory damages.

The tobacco company appealed on multiple grounds, including the issue of whether the $25 million punitive damages were excessive. The appellate court explained that the goal of punitive damages is to punish past conduct and deter similar future actions. This is in contrast to compensatory damages, which are intended to compensate plaintiffs for tangible losses and make them “whole.”

The appellate court also explained that an award of punitive damages can be 3-4 times the compensatory damages award in Florida and still pass constitutional muster. To be constitutional, the weight of the evidence cannot render the amount of punitive damages unreasonably disproportionate to the malice, outrageousness, or wantonness of the defendant’s actions. It also must bear a relationship to the defendant’s ability to pay. It must also bear some reasonable relationship to the compensatory damages
The ratio between punitive and compensatory damages before the judge granted remittitur in this case was 1.25 to 1. The appellate court further explained that the most important factor was how reprehensible the defendant’s actions were. In this case, it found the defendant’s actions reasonably related to the amount of the punitive damages. Accordingly, the award of punitive damages was affirmed.

If you’ve been hurt as a result of another individual or a corporation’s negligence or intentional misconduct, call the experienced personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

More Blogs

Birth Injuries and Medical Negligence in Florida, August 8, 2013
When Can a Plaintiff Ask for a New Trial in Florida, July 26, 2013
Proving Wage Loss in Florida Personal Injury Cases, July 12, 2013

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