Punitive Damages -- 2014

Oleszkowicz v. ExxonMobil Corp.   (Louisiana)

Punitive damages

The NAM supported an appeal by ExxonMobil of a $10 million punitive damages verdict, reduced to $2.4 million, for workplace exposure to naturally occurring radioactive material at a pipeyard. We joined in an amicus brief with the Louisiana Assn. of Business and Industry, the American Tort Reform Association, and the American Chemistry Council, arguing that the trial court should have instructed the jury not to allow punitive damages for alleged harm to nonparties, and that it should have dismissed the case because it duplicated an earlier trial involving the same plaintiff, the same defendant, and the same alleged conduct. The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed to hear this appeal, and reversed the punitive damages award.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that a jury must be instructed not to award punitive damages to one plaintiff based on alleged harm to a completely different person. In this case, the plaintiff repeatedly accused the defendant before the jury of causing harm to other individuals not party to the case. Despite the accusations, the lower court failed to issue this instruction, and the Louisiana Supreme Court fixed the error.

Because this case involved punitive damages claims that were previously rejected, we argued in a second brief on the merits that "Allowing one jury to say 'no' to punitive damages, only later to have another jury say 'yes' is the very meaning of arbitrary punishment" in violation of constitutional due process rights. Courts are supposed to use the legal doctrine known as res judicata to prevent one person from being sued again and again by the same plaintiff after that plaintiff loses the first time. Additionally, Louisiana law specifically calls on courts to preclude claims already raised, in order to promote judicial efficiency, to protect defendants from multiple lawsuits, and to prevent inconsistent decisions.

We also argued that courts should be particularly cautious about allowing identical claims to be relitigated when the claims involve punitive damages, since they are intended as a quasi-criminal punishment and should be avoided. Like double jeopardy in criminal cases, defendants should not be forced to defend multiple times the imposition of punitive damages where that issue from that plaintiff has already been resolved.

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled 12/9/14 that allowing the plaintiff to relitigate the punitive damages issue amount to two bites at the apple, and the doctrine of res judicata prohibits that. This is an important affirmation of the rule that prevents parties from relitigating issues that have aleady been decided in prior litigation.

Related Documents:
NAM amicus brief on the merits  (May 29, 2014)
NAM amicus brief  (February 6, 2014)


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