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Archive for the ‘Tort and Catastrophic Loss’ Category

PUNITIVE DAMAGES: How Much Is Too Much?

Posted on: November 1st, 2018

By: Rebecca Smith

On August 10, 2018, in the first Roundup cancer lawsuit to proceed to trial, a jury awarded Dewayne Johnson a total of $289 million dollars. On Monday, October 22, 2018, a San Francisco Superior Court Judge refused to overturn the jury verdict, however, ruled that if plaintiff would accept a reduction in the punitive damages from $250 million to $39 million she would deny Monsanto’s Motion for New Trial. On Friday, October 26, 2018, attorneys for Plaintiff Johnson accepted the trial court’s reduction of the punitive damage, reducing the total verdict to Mr. Johnson from $289 million to $78 million.

This case involved the trial of design defect and failure to warn claims asserted by Dewayne Johnson alleging that his exposure to glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides (Roundup) developed by Monsanto caused him to develop non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. At trial, the jury was asked to resolve the complex question of whether plaintiff’s exposure to Roundup caused his Lymphoma, to which the jury responded affirmatively. Monsanto challenged that determination in post-trial motions, however, Judge Suzanne Bolanos denied such contest, finding there was no legal basis to disturb the jury’s determination that plaintiff’s exposure to Roundup was a substantial factor in causing his Lymphoma. Judge Bolanos, however, did “disturb” the punitive damage award.

Monsanto had argued that there was no clear and convincing evidence of a specific managing agent authorizing or ratifying malicious conduct and accordingly that punitive damages should not be awarded. Judge Bolanos, however, indicated that when the entire organization is involved in acts that constitute malice, there is no danger a blameless corporation will be punished for bad acts of which it had no control. Further, she held that the jury could have concluded that Monsanto acted with malice by consciously disregarding a probable safety risk of Roundup and continuing to market and sell its products without a warning.

In addressing the amount of the punitive damages, Judge Bolanos began her disagreement with the jury. The award, she indicated, was extremely high for a single plaintiff and consisted largely of non-economic damages which the due process case law recognizes as a punitive element. Pointing to the prior U.S. Supreme Court decision of State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Campbell that “[p]unitive damages found to exceed the ceiling of what due process allows must be reduced,” Judge Bolanos ordered the ratio of compensatory damages to punitive damages be reduced to one to one.  Accordingly, the court held that regardless of the reprehensibility of Monsanto’s conduct, the constitutionally required punitive award could be no more than the compensatory damages award of $39 million.

It is unlikely that this case will end here. While the plaintiff has accepted the reduction in the punitive damages and accordingly, the reduced amount will be entered as a judgment, this does not preclude Monsanto from appealing the judgment. Further, should Monsanto appeal the judgment, plaintiff has reserved its right to appeal the reduction of punitive damages. This is a case well worth watching.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Rebecca Smith at [email protected].

Independent Contractor Or Employee?

Posted on: September 20th, 2018

By: Marshall Coyle

The California Supreme Court has established an “ABC test” that could make it extremely difficult for the state’s truckers to use independent contractors. In Dynamex Operations West Inc. v. Charles Lee, (Case S222732, April 30, 2018) the Supreme Court endorsed what is called the three-pronged ABC test legal standard.

In Dynamex the lawsuit involved allegations by drivers that Dynamex, a nationwide package and document delivery company, had misclassified its delivery drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. The high state court affirmed the appeals court ruling that supported the workers, endorsing what is called the three-pronged ABC test legal standard.

To be classified as an independent contractor, the ABC test requires that: (A) the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work; (B) the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and (C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation or business of the same nature as the work performed.

The state Supreme Court said that in recent years federal and state regulatory agencies have declared that the misclassification of workers as independent contractors rather than employees is a serious problem that deprives federal and state governments billions of dollars in tax revenue and millions of workers of labor law protections.

“On the one hand, if a worker should properly be classified as an employee, the hiring business bears the responsibility of paying federal Social Security and payroll taxes, unemployment insurance taxes and state employment taxes, providing worker’s compensation insurance, and, most relevant for the present case, complying with numerous state and federal statutes and regulations governing the wages, hours and working conditions of employees,” the court wrote in its opinion.

“On the other hand, if a worker should properly be classified as an independent contractor, the business does not bear any of those costs or responsibilities, the worker obtains none of the numerous labor law benefits and the public may be required under applicable laws to assume additional financial burdens with respect to such workers and their families.”

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Marshall Coyle at [email protected].

Murphy’s Law and The Exception to Georgia’s Impact Rule

Posted on: September 17th, 2018

By: Jason Kamp

Claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress are limited by the Impact Rule in Georgia.  In a recent attempt to keep the sole exception from swallowing the Impact Rule, the Supreme Court of Georgia may have done exactly what it sought to prevent.

The Impact Rule states: “In a claim concerning negligent conduct, a recovery for emotional distress is allowed only where there is some impact on the plaintiff, and that impact must be a physical injury.”  Lee v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co. et al., 272 Ga. 583, 584 (2000).

The Impact Rule has one exception for the death of a child:

When, as here, a parent and child sustain a direct physical impact and physical injuries through the negligence of another, and the child dies as the result of such negligence, the parent may attempt to recover for serious emotional distress from witnessing the child’s suffering and death without regard to whether the emotional trauma arises out of the physical injury to the parent.

Lee v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co. et al., 272 Ga. 583, 588 (2000).

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently decided a case concerning the exception to the Impact Rule for the death of a child.  In Coon v. Med. Ctr., Inc., the plaintiff learned during a routine prenatal examination that her unborn baby no longer had a heartbeat. Coon v. Med. Ctr., Inc., 300 Ga. 722, 723 (2017). After labor was induced, the plaintiff’s stillborn child was mixed up with another stillborn at the hospital.  Id. at 724.  The hospital then released the wrong remains to the plaintiff and her family, who unknowingly held services and buried the wrong remains as a result.  Id.  The hospital later realized its mistake and informed the plaintiff.  Id. at 725.  A claim for negligent infliction of emotional harm under the exception followed.

The Supreme Court of Georgia declined to extend the exception, reasoning, “[the plaintiff] did not suffer any physical impact that resulted in physical injury from the hospital’s negligent mishandling of her stillborn child’s remains, nor did the child suffer any physical impact or injury.” Id. at 734-735.

By focusing on the impact element, the Supreme Court implicitly assumed the answer to a threshold question: whether an unborn child is a child capable of dying under the exception.  The court’s reasoning appears to open the exception to all tort cases with a physical impact that results in a failed pregnancy.  This could result in a growth in negligent infliction of emotional distress claims in bodily injury and medical malpractice cases.

Before Coon, the exception to the impact rule assumed the dead child had already been born.  After Coon, that assumption is either gone or open to question.  In its attempt to limit the exception, the Supreme Court of Georgia incidentally expanded it to include a debate on when life begins.  At the end of the Coon opinion, the court remarked, “If we do not insist on a workable limiting principle as a prerequisite to recognition of new exceptions to the physical impact rule, the exceptions will soon will soon swallow the rule.”  Id. at 735.  Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law knows no exceptions.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jason Kamp at [email protected].

Insuring Against Rule 68 Offers of Settlement

Posted on: June 28th, 2018

By: Matt Grattan

One tool defense lawyers in Georgia frequently use to induce settlements is an offer of settlement under O.C.G.A. 9-11-68.   Rule 68 allows either party to a tort action to serve a written offer to settle the claim, so long as the offer is made within a certain time and satisfies several other elements under the statute.  If a Rule 68 offer is properly made by a defendant and rejected, that code section allows a defendant to recover its post-rejection attorney’s fees and expenses from a plaintiff in the event the plaintiff does not recover at least 75% of the offered amount at trial.

It is easy to see how the fee-shifting provision in Rule 68 can provide defense attorneys with leverage during settlement negotiations.  Simply put, it forces plaintiffs to put some skin in the game.  Because paying the defendant’s attorney’s fees and costs can significantly reduce or even eliminate a plaintiffs’ award at trial (and in turn a plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees), plaintiffs may be more inclined to settle rather than face such risks at trial.

The fee-shifting benefit from Rule 68, however, could potentially be diminished by companies like LegalFeeGuard.   Established in Florida in 2012 to combat that state’s offer of settlement statute, LegalFeeGuard has recently started offering insurance policies in Georgia that cover attorney’s fees and costs under O.C.G.A. 9-11-68.  LegalFeeGuard offers no-deductible policies with limits as low as $10,000 and as high as $250,000.   Policies are triggered by a judgment in a bench trial or the return of a verdict in a jury trial, and are available to plaintiffs and defendants for a wide array of cases, including personal injury, breach of contract, and intentional torts.

What does the availability of fee-shifting insurance mean for defense lawyers and their clients?  LegalFeeGuard recently launched in Georgia (and the author is unaware of any other similar companies), so it is tough at this point to determine what kind of impact fee-shifting insurance will have on litigation in Georgia.  But this is certainly a development for lawyers to keep an eye on (particularly since LegalFeeGuard claims on its website to have sold over 1,000 policies in Florida) as such insurance may persuade more plaintiffs to roll the dice and take their case to trial knowing the downside risk of paying fees and costs is reduced, if not altogether eliminated.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Matt Grattan at [email protected].

Coffee, Water, Less Than 20 Minutes

Posted on: June 19th, 2018

SCOTUS KICKS THE CAN ON SHORT BREAKS COMPENSATION

By: John McAvoy

On June 11, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to entertain the appeal of a Pennsylvania employer that could have resolved the emerging split of authority between the federal appellate courts and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as to the compensability of employees’ short rest breaks.

In American Future Systems, Inc. d/b/a Progressive Business Publications v. R. Alexander Acosta, Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, the Secretary of Labor filed suit against Progressive Business Publications, a company that publishes and distributes business publications and sells them through its sales representatives, as well as the company’s owner, alleging they violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by paying their salespeople an hourly wage and bonuses based on their number of sales per hour while they were logged onto the computer at their workstations, and by not paying them if they were logged off for more than 90 seconds.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania previously found that the employer’s policy had violated the FLSA, relying on a DOL regulation which states that “[r]est periods of short duration, running from 5 minutes to about 20 minutes, are common in industry.  They promote the efficiency of the employee and are customarily paid for as working time.  They must be counted as hours worked.”  In so holding, the District Court found that the employer was liable for at least $1.75 million in back wages and damages.

On appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the employer argued that that it provided “flex time” rather than “breaks,” which allowed workers to clock out whenever they wanted, for any reason.  In other words, that the employees were not “working” after they logged off of their computers since they could do anything they wanted, including leaving the office.  The appellate court rejected this argument, reasoning that to dock the pay of employees who can’t manage a bathroom sprint is “absolutely contrary to the FLSA,” and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The Third Circuit’s reliance on DOL regulation was contrary to the holdings of some of the other circuit courts which opted to assess the circumstances of the break in lieu of interpreting the DOL regulation as a bright-line rule that fails to take into consideration the facts of a particular situation.

The employer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify how compensability for breaks should be determined.  Citing the circuit split, the employer posited that the question of break pay should be determined by assessing the circumstances of the break, rather than adopting the DOL regulation as a bright-line rule.  In its reply brief, the DOL fervently defended its regulations and denied the existence of the alleged circuit split, arguing that “hours worked [are] not limited to the time an employee actually performs his or her job duties.”  Unfortunately, this remains an issue for another day as the Supreme Court refused to hear the case and/or resolve the alleged split.

Absent a decision from the Supreme Court to the contrary, employers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware are bound by the Third Circuit’s decision. As such, employers in these states must continue to comply with DOL regulations with respect to the compensability of short breaks.

Fortunately, the applicable DOL regulations are designed to protect employers’ rights. For starters, the regulations recognize that meal periods serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, as such, are not compensable.  Second, an employer need not count an employee’s unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer’s rules, and any extension of the break will be punished.

Although an employer will have to compensate an employee who repeatedly takes unauthorized breaks lasting less than 20 minutes in order to comply with the Third Circuit’s ruling and the applicable DOL regulations, the employer is nevertheless free to discipline the employee for such indiscretions by whatever means the employer deems appropriate, including termination.

Prudent employers should prepare themselves to address such issues through smart planning and proper training of employees, including managers, supervisors and HR personnel to ensure the employer’s break, discipline, and termination policies and procedures comply with all applicable DOL regulations.

Want to know whether your company’s break, discipline, and termination policies and procedures comply with DOL regulations? Let me help. Please call or email me (215.789.4919; [email protected]).