In 2001, Louis Stockell, driving his pickup at 70 mph, twice the speed limit, rear-ended a Chrysler minivan. Physics being what they are, the front passenger seat in the van collapsed backwards and the passenger’s head struck and fatally injured 8-month old Joshua Flax. The rest of the family walked away from the horrific accident. Plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Butler argued that Chrysler, which already designed its seats above federal standards, should be punished for not making the seats stronger — never mind that a stronger and stiffer seat would result in more injuries from other kinds of crashes because it wouldn’t absorb any energy from the crash. (Rear-end collisions are responsible for only 3% of auto fatalities.) Apparently car companies are expected to anticipate which type of crash a particular vehicle will encounter, and design accordingly. The $105M verdict includes $98M in punitives.
We had more details of trial shenanigans in December 2004 and noted the reduction of the punitives by the trial court to a still unreasonable $20 million in June 2005. In December 2006, the intermediate appellate court threw out the punitive damages and the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, leaving a $5 million compensatory damages verdict to be split between Chrysler and the driver responsible for the accident. An injustice, but at least a smaller injustice.
However, today, a 3-2 vote of the Tennessee Supreme Court made it a larger injustice again, reinstating $13,367,345 of punitive damages over a good-faith dispute over appropriate seatback design, giving no credit to evidence that the design in the Caravan was safer than the plaintiffs’ proposed design, and effectively disregarding Tennessee statutory law that compliance with federal standards creates a presumption against punitive damages. The Court did not mention Exxon Shipping‘s suggestion that punitive damages greater than a 1:1 ratio were possibly constitutionally inappropriate where compensatory damages were substantial and the defendant’s actions were not intentional or done for profit. The Court unanimously affirmed the elimination of the NIED claim; one justice would have thrown out the compensatory damages, as well, because of the volume of inadmissible and improperly prejudicial evidence admitted. (Flax v. Daimler Chrysler (Tenn. Jul. 24, 2008); id. (Wade, J., concurring); id. (Clark, J., partially dissenting); id. (Koch, J., partially dissenting); E. Thomas Wood, “High court upholds $18.4M damage award in DaimlerChrysler case”, Nashville Post, Jul. 24; Kristin M. Hall, AP/Chicago Tribune, Jul. 24). The majority decision relied heavily on the expert testimony of Paul Sheridan, an MBA non-engineer and professional anti-Chrysler witness whom a federal court called “wholly unqualified” to testify on seat back design.