Tobacco Company Challenges Punitive Damages Award For Sacramento-Area Woman, Part 4 of 7

(Please note: the names and locations of all parties have been changed to protect the confidentiality of this wrongful death case and its proceedings.)

After hearing this evidence and argument, the jury returned a $10 million punitive award that the trial court reduced to $5 million. The Second District reversed, holding that it was error for the trial court to admit evidence of the two other spills. Even though that evidence also involved damage from oil spills and Unocal’s refusal to compensate landowners for their damages in a timely manner, the other cases were different from the Holdgrafers’: they involved different kinds of leaks, different kinds of contamination, different company personnel, different responses, and different methods of avoiding responsibility. The Court of Appeal therefore held that the evidence was too dissimilar to shed significant light on the reprehensibility of the conduct that had actually harmed the plaintiff, and that to the extent it was marginally relevant, its potential for prejudice far outweighed its probative value. (See Cal. Evid. Code § 352.) The court vacated the award and remanded for a new trial on punitive damages.

This reasoning tracks the California courts’ application of Evidence Code § 1101, which provides that character evidence is inadmissible to prove that the defendant engaged in misconduct consistent with that bad character on the occasion at issue in the trial. In Clark v. Optical Coating Lab., Inc., 165 Cal. App. 4th 150 (2008), the First District explained that Section 1101 applies to corporate defendants and precludes a plaintiff from offering evidence of a defendant’s other bad acts absent a showing of distinctive similarities or common features between the two instances of conduct. Id. at 175. Applying that rule, the court held that evidence of groundwater contamination at the defendant’s own facility was inadmissible in support of the plaintiffs’ claim that the defendant had disposed of chemicals improperly on the plaintiffs’ property. Id. at 174-75.

Similarly, in Brokopp v. Ford Motor Co., 71 Cal. App. 3d 841 (1977), the Fourth District held that evidence of the defendant’s negligent failure to discover the existence of one defective component of a vehicle was irrelevant and inadmissible to support claim that defendant had negligently failed to discover a different defective component of the very same vehicle. Id. at 852-53. Given the constitutional importance of protecting defendants against the risk of improper punishment (see State Farm, 538 U.S. at 417-18), as well as the plaintiffs burden of proving all facts in support of a punitive damages claim by clear and convincing evidence (see CACI 201) the evidence of similarity must be even stronger in punitive damages cases. (See Part 5 of 7.)

For more information you are welcome to contact Sacramento personal injury lawyer, Moseley Collins.

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