(Please note: the names and locations of all parties have been changed to protect the confidentiality of this wrongful death case and its proceedings.)
The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed a punitive damages award and remanded for a new trial in a suit against an insurance company alleged to have made a bad-faith effort to settle a auto-injury claim, because the trial court improperly admitted evidence of the defendant’s allegedly similar effort to stonewall another claimant. Citing State Farm, the court held that the evidence was improperly admitted because the Constitution sharply limit[s] the use of evidence of other transgressions to prove entitlement to punitive damages. Ky. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. v. Rodgers, 179 S.W.3d 815, 819 (Ky. 2005).
In each of the above cases, just as in this case, the plaintiff wished to tell the jury about other acts the defendant committed, beyond the acts that caused the harm for which compensatory damages were awarded. In each of the above cases, just as in this case, there was a plausible connection between those acts and the conduct that harmed the plaintiff. In each of the above cases, just as in this case, the plaintiff was able to describe a course of conduct that encompassed both the conduct that harmed him and the evidence of other acts. And in each of the above cases, the appellate courts eventually held that it was error to admit the evidence of other acts.
Indeed, there are striking parallels between the evidence that plaintiff wants to introduce here and the evidence at issue in the above cases. Just as the plaintiff in this case argues that USA Tobacco engaged in a decades-long scheme of fraudulently inducing consumers to buy dangerous defective products, the plaintiff in State Farm claimed that the defendant had a national scheme to meet corporate fiscal goals by capping payouts on claims company wide. And just as plaintiff in this case argues that USA Tobacco blames anything and anyone except itself for the results of its conduct, the Holdgrafer plaintiffs argued that the evidence of other oil spills demonstrated a company policy of denying responsibility for such accidents. Time and again, the appellate courts have rejected these arguments. Even where other bad acts are sufficiently connected to the conduct that harmed the plaintiff to be marginally relevant to demonstrate the reprehensibility of that conduct, the potential for prejudice usually far outweighs the probative value.
See Cal. Code. Evid. § 352. That is why the State Farm Court cautioned lower courts to ensure the conduct in question replicates the prior transgressions. 538 U.S. at 410 (emphasis added). See also Williams v. ConAgra Poultry Co., 378 F.3d 790, 797-98 (8th Cir. 2004) (noting that State Farm emphasized that the relevant behavior [in punitive damages calculations] must be defined at a low level of generality.)
Indeed, in some cases, like the one about the use of unapproved pesticides on multiple farms, or the one about evidence of multiple drunk-driving arrests, the bad acts conduct was closely related to the conduct that had harmed the plaintiff. But still, the risk of prejudice was too great to risk admitting the evidence. (See Part 7 of 7.)
For more information you are welcome to contact Sacramento personal injury lawyer, Moseley Collins.