Massachusetts SJC Upholds Punitive Damages Award in Massachusetts Pool Death Case

If I asked you what “punitive damages” are, would you be able to tell me? As a Boston injury lawyer, I have found that a great many people don’t. That’s unfortunate, because they are a VERY important part of our civil justice (tort) system.

Okay: Let’s define this as briefly as possible without getting into a law school lecture: There are different types of damages that may be awarded in any lawsuit. But in general, they can be broken down into two very broad categories: Compensatory and Non-compensatory. Compensatory damages do just what the term implies: They compensate the victim for the victim’s losses – whether those losses are economic/financial (such as lost income or medical expenses) or non-economic (such as pain and suffering and loss of consortium, meaning the loss of someone’s active presence and enjoyment in their life). Non-compensatory damages include punitive damages: These damages are awarded to a plaintiff not to compensate them for something they have lost or suffered – economic or non-economic – but instead to punish the defendant wrongdoer in the case, when that conduct has been egregious (i.e., especially offensive or unconscionable).

The ability of a court to award punitive damages is extremely important, for the obvious reason that it punishes (hence “punitive”) the wrongdoing defendant for his/her/its conduct – thus providing a disincentive for similar defendants (such a big corporations,) from engaging in similarly wrongful conduct. It’s easy to see how punitive damages serve an extremely important legal and social goal, whether in a Massachusetts personal injury case, or a different type of case.

The shocking thing about practicing law in Massachusetts is that in almost all cases, Massachusetts does not allow courts to award punitive damages in personal injury cases – no matter how egregious or reprehensible the defendant’s conduct was. It really is an awful rule – and my clients are understandably surprised when I tell them this. However, there is an exception for just one type of case: A Massachusetts wrongful death case. Because the number of wrongful death cases that have involved punitive damages has been so few, there is not much case law or precedent in Massachusetts for awarding these types of damages.

That all changed very recently, with a decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). In fact, the case was one I previously blogged about, involving the death of a woman who used an inflatable slide marketed by Toys R Us, Aleo v. SLB Toys USA, Inc.

The plaintiff (the deceased victim’s estate, represented by her husband) argued that the inflatable slide was both dangerous and defective, due to the fact that it failed to comply with federal standards that required inflatable slides to support body weight up to 350 pounds. Stunningly, the slide’s own warning label provided evidence that the product did not comply with the federal regulation, stating that it could only support a maximum of 200 pounds. You could call that an oversight or corporate arrogance. I call it arrogance.

A jury in Superior Court had found Toys R Us liable in the woman’s death, and awarded $2.6 million in compensatory damages to the deceased victim’s husband and daughter. These damages were intended to compensate the husband and daughter for loss of companionship of the victim as wife and mother, and lost earnings. A compensatory award of $2.6 million is a fairly low amount, given the woman’s age and the facts of the case. However, the jury balanced that award by also issuing a punitive damages verdict of $18 million, as it found the actions engaged in by Toys R Us to be especially egregious. Toys R Us appealed, claiming that the punitive damages award was “excessive.” “Excessive” – For creating conditions in its product that caused a healthy 29-year-old woman and mother to slam her neck into a concrete surface below the pool, pulverizing two vertebrae, immediately rendering her a quadriplegic, and ultimately causing her death the next day. Can you believe that? Thankfully, the SJC’s decision sent Toys R Us, packing.

Because there was so little Massachusetts case law on the subject of punitive damages, the court had to look to federal decisions for guidance. But it didn’t take long to find that the defendant’s conduct here was grossly negligent, therefore legally justifying a punitive damage award. Most of the court’s analysis was on the legally appropriate considerations in reviewing a punitive damages award, as well as on the appropriate mathematical ratio or relationship between a compensatory damages award and a punitive damages award. The court found nothing excessive in a punitive damages award that was less than ten times what the compensatory award was.

So, here in Massachusetts, there’s hope that perhaps one day punitive damages awards will be expanded to other types of cases. As a Boston accident attorney, I hope so – because it’s the only thing that’s ever going to really deter unconscionable corporate conduct.