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Louisiana high court cuts punitive damages down to $4.25 million in wrongful death case

By Angela Underwood | Nov 21, 2017

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NEW ORLEANS (Legal Newsline) – The Louisiana Supreme Court amended a wrongful death judgment by nearly $20 million, citing that the punitive damage award was "excessive."

An opinion handed down Oct. 18 by Judge Greg Guidry and dissented by Judges John Weimer, Marcus Clark and Scott Crichton, amended a judgment for plaintiff Ron Warren and on behalf of the estate of Derek Hebert and defendant Shelter Mutual Insurance Co. from $125,000 in compensatory damages and $23 million in punitive damages to a $4.25 million award in punitive damages.

Warren sought wrongful death recovery for his son Derek Hebert, who was killed in a 2005 recreational boating accident, under general maritime law for product liability against Teleflex Inc. The opinion states that Hebert was a passenger on a boat when the Teleflex steering system on the boat failed, causing it to turn violently and ejecting Hebert. Hebert was struck by the boat's propeller, which resulted in his death, the opinion states.

“We granted Teleflex’s writ application mainly to review whether the trial court properly granted the plaintiff a new trial and whether the award of punitive damages was excessive and resulted in a violation of the defendant’s right to constitutional due process,” Guidry wrote in the Oct. 18 opinion.

According to the opinion, the first jury did not find Teleflex liable and dismissed Warren’s wrongful death claims. However, the trial court thereafter granted the plaintiff’s motion for new trial based prejudicial error in the first trial, the opinion states.

“After years of litigation, the matter finally came to trial in 2014 against defendants Glen and Daniel Vamvoras (the boat operator and owner) and Teleflex. This trial was bifurcated as to the issues of liability and exemplary damages,” Guidry wrote in the Oct. 18 opinion. “At the close of the liability portion of that first trial, the district court granted the Vamvorases’ motions for a directed verdict, dismissing them from the suit and leaving Teleflex as the only defendant on the verdict form.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court judges were left with an alleged six assignments of error by Teleflex, including allegations that the district court approved a new trial without accurately determining that there had been a failure of justice to which the appellate court affirmed; the court of appeal was wrong to uphold the trial court’s rejection of jury instructions that a warning of a component part manufacturer differs from the warning of manufacturer; the court of appeal erred in supporting the trial court’s decision in the second trial to “un-bifurcate,” which ultimately caused prejudice to Teleflex.

The additional alleged errors in assignments included the court of appeal was wrong to agree with the trial court’s finding of liability for punitive damages; the court of appeal was incorrect in agreeing that the trial court’s acceptance of the excessive punitive damages as a matter of federal maritime and constitutional law; and lastly, the court of appeal was wrong to not fully examine the fairness of the verdict and judgment.

After reviewing the six assessments under applicable law, the judges did not find any reversible error in the trial court’s rulings. But they did find the punitive damage award amount violated Teleflex’s constitutional due process.

“We affirm the lower court’s judgment in part, amend the judgment to award $4.25 million in punitive damages to the plaintiff, and affirm as amended,” Guidry wrote in the opinion.

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Louisiana Supreme Court