Use of Company Conduct Evidence to Prove Liability or Punitive Damages

As due process considerations have taken their more appropriate place in the law of punitive damages, see BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996), trial courts have struggled with the intersection of traditional product liability law and new rules on evidence necessitated by such due process concerns. 

For example, plaintiffs frequently seek to use evidence of other allegedly similar conduct and allegedly substantially similar accidents, injuries, incidents for liability related issues such as notice and defect.  In Philip Morris USA, Inc. v. Williams, 127 S.Ct. 1057 (2008), however, the Court confirmed a significant constitutional principle limiting punitive damages awards: the Due Process Clause prohibits juries from basing punitive damages awards even in part upon the desire to punish a defendant for harm to persons that are not before the court. 

Williams arose from an Oregon trial wherein a jury awarded $821,000 in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages against cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris. At trial, the plaintiff’s attorney had urged the jury to punish Philip Morris for alleged harm to smokers other than the plaintiff by referring to the defendant’s market share and the number of smokers not only in the state of Oregon, but nationwide, who had allegedly contracted a smoking-related illness in the last 40 years. The Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause forbids a jury from assessing punitive damages to punish a defendant for injury that it inflicts upon non-parties or “strangers” to this litigation. While a jury may consider the actual or potential harm to non-parties in the narrow context of determining “reprehensibility” of the conduct, which in turn is one of the factors relevant to an analysis whether the punitive damages award is excessive or not, it may not punish the defendant for the impact of its alleged misconduct on other people, who may bring lawsuits of their own in which other juries can resolve their claims.

The Supreme Court cautioned state courts that they must make sure that the “jury will ask the right question, not the wrong one.”  That is, evidence regarding alleged injuries of those not before the court must be used solely to judge the reprehensibility of the conduct, not to assess damages for the harm caused to those strangers. While the Court commented on the Oregon court’s refusal to give a jury instruction clarifying this distinction, it noted generally that state courts cannot authorize any procedures that create an unreasonable and necessary risk of any such confusion occurring. When evidence is introduced or argument made that risks this confusion, the state court must take steps to protect against that risk. 

Another such conflict was seen in the recent Montana case involving the trial court's exclusion of a car seat manufacturer's evidence of regulatory compliance.  Malcolm v. Evenflo Co., 2009 WL 2917799 (Mont., September 14, 2009).  The state supreme court ruled that while the evidence should have been excluded from the jury's consideration of liability for compensatory damages, the evidence should have been admitted for purposes of assessing punitive damages.  It let stand the compensatory award, but vacated the punitive damages award.

The case arose from a motor vehicle accident during which plaintiff's decedent  rode in the back of an SUV in the OMW model 207 child seat. A northbound motorist swerved into plaintiff Malcolm's lane and forced Malcolm off the road. The vehicle rolled three times, traveled down a steep incline, and stopped in a ditch.  The left belt hook of the OMW broke off during the rollover. The seat belt slipped out from the open-ended belt hook on the opposite side of the seat. The forces of the accident ejected the OMW from the vehicle, which resulted in death, according to plaintiffs.

The theory at trial was strict liability in tort, design defect theory. The Malcolms claimed that the Evenflo OMW model 207 infant child safety seat constituted a defectively designed product that failed even though they had used the seat in a reasonably anticipated manner. The Malcolms pointed to the OMW's open-ended belt hook design that might have prevented the injury. The Malcolms contended that Evenflo could have manufactured the OMW using an allegedly  feasible superior alternative design that required the vehicle's seatbelt to be routed through an enclosed seat belt tunnel even when the seat was used without the base. The Malcolms also sought punitive damages. The Malcolms alleged that Evenflo “continued selling the defective product in conscious, deliberate and intentional disregard of the danger presented.”

Evenflo contended that the OMW model 207 was not defective in any way. Evenflo argued that the severity of the forces involved in the accident were the sole cause of the death. Evenflo argued that the “tremendous forces” that occurred during the rollover forced open the rear passenger door, which was immediately adjacent to Tyler's child seat. Evenflo posited that Tyler's car seat came into direct contact with the ground as the Suburban rolled. Evenflo argued that the contact caused the seat to detach from the seat belt system and ultimately fly out the open door.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires that all child restraint systems comply with the minimum requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. See 49 C.F.R. § 571.213 (2009). NHTSA required Evenflo to conduct internal testing of the OMW to determine if it complied with the FMVSS 213 standards, which it did. NHTSA and Transport Canada, the Canadian testing agency, conducted random audit FMVSS 213 tests in addition to Evenflo's internal testing.

The first issue was the basic products issue: Evenflo argued that the trial court erred when it excluded any evidence that the OMW model 207 complied with FMVSS 213. Evenflo contended that the fact that the OMW model 207 passed 341 tests performed under FMVSS 213 was highly relevant to the claim that the model 207 was defective and unreasonably dangerous.

Evenflo noted that the standard would be admissible in a negligence case, and  there is no reason why such highly relevant evidence should not be used in strict products liability cases. Thus, Evenflo urged the Court to adopt the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 4 (1998). Section 4 provides that compliance with an applicable regulation is admissible in connection with liability for defective design. Evenflo noted that a majority of jurisdictions hold that compliance with product safety regulation is relevant and admissible on the question of defectiveness, even if it is not necessarily controlling.

The four-justice majority reiterated this court's adherence to “well-settled, decades-old principles of strict liability” that consider irrelevant a manufacturer's reasonableness and level of care. The court declined to adopt the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, §4.  Montana thus continues to be one of those few states that cling to the now-discredited "bright line" verbal distinction between cases asserting strict liability in tort and those grounded in negligence theory. (This Court had previously distinguished strict liability from negligence when it rejected the “state of the art” defense, for example, because it raises issues of reasonableness and foreseeability --concepts fundamental to negligence law.)  It still argues that any attempt to inject so-called negligence principles into strict liability law would somehow sever Montana's strict products liability law from the core principles for which it was adopted.  The focus in design defect cases must be on “the condition of the product,” rather than “the manufacturer's conduct or knowledge."  And the way to do this, apparently, is to exclude relevant, material, probative evidence that the product passed regulatory muster.

On the punitive damages issue, Evenflo argued that the trial court's decision to exclude evidence of the OMW model 207's compliance with FMVSS 213 prevented it from introducing evidence bearing on its state of mind. A defendant's state of mind is a “key element” in assessing punitive damages, and the car seat maker should have been able to present evidence of its regulatory compliance. 

The trial court had concluded that the OMW model 207's compliance with FMVSS 213 had “absolutely no bearing at all upon the reprehensibility of the conduct of Evenflo.” But the supreme court could not sustain the verdict on punitives in light of the court's decision to exclude evidence that might show why Evenflo acted as it did, or failed to act, when the jury considered whether to award punitive damages. Evidence of Evenflo's good faith effort to comply with all government regulations, including FMVSS 213, would be evidence of conduct inconsistent with the mental state requisite for punitive damages.

Interestingly, the supreme court noted that while here a new jury here could consider evidence of the OMW model 207's compliance with FMVSS 213 for the purposes of determining whether Evenflo acted with actual fraud or actual malice, generally the Montana system provides for the presentation of evidence regarding liability for compensatory damages and punitive damages to the jury in a single proceeding. Thus, bifurcation is disfavored, and the trial courts must ordinarily trust that the jury will heed the court's instructions as to how to evaluate the evidence presented.

One dissenting justice would have also reversed the compensatory damages. He differed from the majority on how the trial was conducted and saw it as improperly biased against Evenflo. Two other dissenters agreed with the majority on the compensatory damages but would have sustained the punitive award, arguing that Evenflo's inability to present evidence of its compliance with regulations did not prejudice the company.

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