Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Exemplary Damages -- Re-Visiting the Damages Cap Calculation

By Jonathan Spigel

In an appeal of a jury award in an asbestos/ mesothelioma wrongful death case, the Dallas Court of Appeals had the opportunity to re-visit the statutory cap provision addressing exemplary/punitive damages awards.  Specifically, in The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company v. Vicki Lynn Rogers case, the appellate court focused on what constitutes “economic damages” for purposes of applying and calculating the exemplary damages cap (that limits such damages to the greater of: (1) two times the amount of economic damages plus any non-economic damages found by the jury, not to exceed $750,000.00; or (2) $200,000.00).  The appellate court held that:

. . . a fact finding of pecuniary losses must be supported by evidence of actual monetary losses like lost wages, replacement costs, or other financial contributions, in light of the facts and circumstances concerning that decedent’s relationship with the claimant and that decedent’s actual financial contribution to that claimant, before those findings can be used as economic damages when calculating the exemplary damages cap.

Goodyear, 538 S.W.3d at 655-56.

In Goodyear, the appellate court suggested a remittitur (reduction) of the trial court’s almost $3,000,000.00 exemplary damages award down to $1,150,000.00, holding that the evidence of alleged economic damages sustained by the plaintiffs' adult daughter did not pass the above-stated test, and that the surviving widow’s economic damages  (under the same test) were only $200,000.00.  See id. at 657-60.  Applying twice the widow’s economic damages ($200,000.00) plus the $750,000.00 non-economic damages cap yielded the $1,150,000.00 figure.

The lesson from the Goodyear decision is that in developing – or refuting – economic damages as part of a gross negligence case, evidence of more specific monetary loss is required (as compared with the less exacting evidentiary standard applied to awards of compensatory damages for non-economic losses such as mental anguish, and pain and suffering). 

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