Buell-Wilson v. Ford redux

In February of last year, I wrote at length about an appalling jury verdict (June 2004) and disingenuous appellate decision in an SUV rollover case:

It went generally unnoticed last November when the California Supreme Court refused to review an intermediate court’s decision in Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Co. But then again, it went generally unnoticed when a jury awarded an arbitrary $368 million in damages in that case, when the trial judge reduced that verdict to an arbitrary $150 million judgment, and when an intermediate appellate court reduced that figure to an arbitrary $82.6 million (which, with interest, works out to over $100 million).

The US Supreme Court remanded to consider in light of Philip Morris v. Williams. For whatever reason, the California Court of Appeals decision to be even more disingenuous and say “We don’t care about Williams” reaffirming the $82.6 million got much more attention. Bruce Nye has the best analysis of the “thumb in your eye” decision; Lisa Perrochet also analyzes the verdict. John Rohan is critical. Press coverage: Recorder/Law.com; San Diego Union-Tribune; Reuters; AP/SJ Mercury News. Ford will appeal.


  • Seems to me that the same basic thing eventually happened in Oregon with the Williams case itself (i.e., the state court passed on the opportunity to apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s punitive damages jurisprudence). Unless it is going to devote a fair amount of its limited docket to these cases, the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t have the ability to police the punitive damages decisions of 50 state jurisdictions as well as those decided in the federal courts.

    Even if the Court could police this area of the law on its own, I’m not sure it would do much good for it to try. To say the least, its decisions in this area have not been a model of clarity. For example, how is a jury supposed to consider harms to nonparties for purposes of assessing reprehensibility but not let that affect the actual amount of punitive damages assessed (as required by Williams)?

    In my opinion, if punitive damage awards are going to be limited to reasonable amounts in appropriate cases, state legislatures are going to have to address the matter in detail. (The same thing goes for over-the-top compensatory damage awards predominately comprised of noneconomic harms.) It’s folly to think the Supreme Court can set matters right regarding punitive damages.

  • Punitive damages define a crime and its punishment after an event. They are ex post facto in nature, and violate a universal legal principle. The Supreme Court should rule that that such awards are unconstitutional absent a legislative regime that would rationally define a crime and its consequence.

  • Punitive damages are not for ex post facto behavior, but are for the initial tortious behavior which is particularly egregious or shocking. (Think intentional!) At least some times.

    For example, punitive (3x) damages are authorized by statute in patent infringement cases. As are attorney fees. Anyone infringing should know that … it isn’t a surprise after the fact.

    In a straight civil tort case, it seems a little more ambiguous. The jury gets hold of an emotional theme, and reason disappears. But that’s a failing of ignorant juries … far too many people live in this society with bizarre socialist notions of “people’s justice” to go after legal commercial behavior that they personally dislike. But that is an indictment of the jury composition, not the concept of punitive damages.