Massachusetts Court Upholds Punitive Award

Punitive damages, the target of tort reformers in many areas of the country, are relatively uncommon in Massachusetts and most of the New England states.  Unlike many other states, Massachusetts does not allow punitive damages–those awarded not to compensate the injured plaintiff, but to punish the wrongdoer–in most personal injury cases, no matter how egregious the defendant’s conduct.  A notable exception is a claim for wrongful death.

As a result, there is a paucity of case law in the Commonwealth defining the appropriate amount and standard for the award of punitive damages.  A recent case, Aleo v. SLB Toys USA, Inc., is the Supreme Judicial Court’s most recent opinion on punitive damages, and contains the Court’s first significant discussion of the appropriate amount that may be awarded as punishment.  In Aleo, the Court showed a willingness to uphold a reasonably significant punitive award, particularly where the underlying compensatory award was relatively modest.

Aleo involved a claim for the wrongful death of a 29-year-old wife and mother, who was rendered instantly quadriplegic as she slid down an inflatable slide into a swimming pool.  The slide collapsed, and she struck her head and neck on the concrete deck of the pool, fracturing two vertebrae.  She died the following day.  The plaintiff claimed that the inflatable slide was dangerous and defective because it failed to comply with federal standards requiring such slides to support up to 350 pounds of weight.  In an interesting twist, the warning label on the slide itself proved non-compliance, stating that it could support just 200 pounds!

The jury’s award of $2.6 million in compensatory damages for the loss to the woman’s husband and daughter, including loss of companionship, loss of household services, and lost earnings.  Considering the woman’s age, most observers would consider the verdict rather low.  Yet it was balanced by an award of $18 million in punitive damages.

The Court had little difficulty finding that the defendant’s conduct in selling a slide which did not comply with federal standards was grossly negligent, thus warranting a punitive damage award.  A large portion of the Court’s opinion focused on various federal decisions attempting to  define the proper considerations in evaluating a punitive damage award, as well as on the appropriate relationship between a compensatory and a punitive award.

The Court noted that the evidence product had caused death, and that the defendant had demonstrated indifference to the safety of others, and had endangered a large number of people, since approximately 4000 slides were sold throughout the country.  All of these factors would support a significant award.

Finally, the Court considered various Supreme Court decisions addressing the proper ratio between compensatory and punitive damages, finding no excessive punishment in a punitive award that was less than ten times the compensatory award.  Here, the Court noted the relatively modest verdict in light of the age and circumstances of the decedent as another factor that supported a large punitive award.

A jury’s ability to award punitive damages in appropriate cases is an effective public safety measure, as it allows citizens to make a statement about the reprehensibility of conduct, with the goal of punishing the most egregious cases of negligence and deterring similar conduct in the future.  The Supreme Judicial Court’s affirmance of the verdict recognizes the importance of allowing jury’s statement to stand as an expression of the community’s standards and views.

Read the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Aleo here.