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Posts Tagged ‘punitive damages’

Despite Causing Wildfires, PG&E Avoids Punitive Damages

Posted on: August 2nd, 2018

By: Carlos Martinez-Garcia

On July 2, 2018, the Third Appellate District of California awarded Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) its first critical victory in defending itself against fire claims caused by its power lines: Butte Fire Cases, (2018) 24 Cal. App. 5th 1150. In 2015, the “Butte Fire” started after a gray pine came into contact with one of PG&E’s power lines, burning more than 70,868 acres, damaging hundreds of structures, and claiming two lives. The subsequent lawsuits, which were consolidated in a judicial council coordinated proceeding in Sacramento Superior Court, are comprised of 2,050 plaintiffs who sought punitive damages under Civil Code § 3294.

The master complaint alleged that the utility company and two contractors failed to properly maintain the power line and adjacent vegetation, warranting punitive damages. The Third Appellate District disagreed, striking Plaintiffs’ prayer for a punitive damages award.

In California, punitive damages may be recovered under section 3294 “where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.” (Civ. Code § 3294) Malice is defined by section 3294, subdivision (c)(1) as “conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.”

In seeking summary adjudication, PG&E submitted evidence that it devotes significant resources to vegetation management programs intended to minimize the risk of wildfire, spending more than $190 million per year on vegetation management operations. The operations include routine annual patrols, quality assurance and control programs, and a public safety and reliability program. PG&E also contracted with ACRT, Inc. to conduct inspections and vegetation management, Quantum Spatial, to collect data using LiDAR to identify dead or dying trees, and Trees, Inc. to trim noncompliant trees. No inspections identified the subject tree as a danger.

The Third District was unpersuaded by Plaintiffs’ contention that PG&E’s vegetation management program was “window dressing”, PG&E’s vegetation management methodologies were defective, or that PG&E evinced a cavalier attitude towards public safety evidenced by the infamous San Bruno pipeline explosion and a 1994 “Rough and Ready” fire caused by PG&E.

Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of material fact that showed PG&E acted despicably, or with willful and conscious disregard for the rights and safety of others. PG&E’s nondelegable duty to safely maintain the power lines does not alter the analysis of punitive damages under § 3294. There was nothing despicable in the utility company’s assumption that contractors were training their employees as required, and any criticisms of PG&E’s methodologies do not amount to clear and convincing proof that PG&E acted with malice. At most, plaintiffs’ evidence showed mere carelessness or ignorance.

If you have any questions, or would like more information, please contact Carlos Martinez-Garcia at [email protected].

Ordinarily, Is It Professional Negligence? Georgia Supreme Court Thinks So In $22 Million Reversal

Posted on: April 17th, 2018

By: Shaun Daugherty

The Georgia appellate courts have addressed the issues between claims of ordinary and professional negligence in medical malpractice cases for a number of years.  The standards for liability are distinctly different, but in certain factual scenarios there may be a fine line drawn between the two.  The Georgia Supreme Court made a clear distinction on the issue last month in reversing a $22 million dollar compensatory verdict awarded in Southeastern Pain Specialists v. Brown.  This was after the same verdict had been affirmed by the Court of Appeals that found no error in the trial court charging the jury on both ordinary and professional negligence.

The Georgia Supreme Court had some clear leanings regarding the quality of care that was provided in the underlying lawsuit according to the evidence presented at trial.  The case involved an epidural steroid injection procedure where a pulse oximeter and blood pressure cuff were placed on the patient for monitoring while she was administered anesthesia face down.  During the procedure, the evidence was that the pulse oximeter read 0% and the blood pressure cuff registered no reading for a significant amount of time.  The evidence was that the defendant doctor, with knowledge of the readings, continued the procedure insisting that everything was fine.  After the 18-minute procedure, the patient was repositioned on her back and did not recover as expected.  She was taken to the local ER for further care and the defendant doctor indicated to the medical personnel that the patient was having complications from the anesthesia.  He failed to provide any information regarding the intra-procedure pulse oximeter or blood pressure readings. The patient was found to have suffered brain damage and ultimately died from the same.

At trial, the court charged the jury on both ordinary negligence, over objection by the defense, and professional negligence.  The plaintiff argued that the ordinary negligence charge was warranted due to the obvious obligation to save someone if they are not breathing and the misrepresentations made by the defendant doctor to the other healthcare providers.  The court provided no guidance as to which facts and circumstances in the case may apply to which theory of negligence. Further, the plaintiff appears to have argued in closing that the ordinary negligence standard was to be applicable generally to the defendants.

The Georgia Supreme Court made it clear that even “a very strong case of medical malpractice does not become a case of ordinary negligence simply due to the egregiousness of the medical malpractice.”  It was recognized that medical providers could be held to the ordinary negligence standard under the right circumstances, but primarily only in those cases where there was no need to exercise medical judgment.  Multiple times in the Court’s reversing opinion, it was highlighted that the facts of the case involved medical data provided by medical equipment during a medical procedure and the proper response to the same.  It was found that this required the exercise of medical judgment.

In cases involving claims of medical malpractice, the defendant is provided a presumption of due care which must be overcome by expert testimony by the plaintiff.  In cases involving ordinary negligence, no such presumption is given.  The Court found that the Court of Appeals erred in finding that a lay person would not need expert testimony to understand the meaning of the data provided from the medical machines and the proper method of response during the medical procedure.  The “trust” of the plaintiff’s argument was that the defendant doctor failed to properly respond to the data that was being provided by the machines.  This was information that required expert judgment and decision making which was outside the scope of ordinary negligence.

The Court determined that providing the jury with an ordinary negligence instruction, without clarification as to which facts and claims it may apply, invited them to decide the medical liability outside the boundaries for claims of professional negligence.  Primarily the need for expert testimony to overcome the presumption of due care.  This was compounded by the plaintiff’s counsel’s arguments in closing which made no distinction and appeared to encourage the ordinary negligence standard to all claims.  The jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff was a general form and did not allow the Court to determine whether the verdict was based on the application of the appropriate standard.  Because it was error to provide the ordinary negligence charge without further clarification or instruction, the Court reversed and remanded the matter to the Court of Appeals with a direction to send it back to the trial court for a full retrial as to the appealing parties, including the issue of punitive damages to which the plaintiff had previously been awarded $0.

So what does this opinion tell us?  It tells us that ordinary and professional negligence claims can live in the same case, but it is essential that they be clearly defined for the jury.  The trial court’s vague instruction, coupled with the plaintiff’s counsel’s closing argument, invited the reversal in this instance.  As the Court indicated many times, medical data from medical machines during a medical procedure require the exercise of expert medical judgment in determining the proper response.  The failure of the trial court and attorney to set this apart from any ordinary duty of care in defendant’s communications to other medical providers was harmful error which required the retrial.

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

Thorough Internal Investigations Can Offer Employers a Way to Address Sexual Harassment Complaints in a #MeToo Work World

Posted on: March 27th, 2018

By: Mark C. Stephenson
On January 6, 2014, Rosanna Mayo-Coleman filed a pro se complaint against her employer, alleging a hostile work environment, discrimination based on sex, race and age and retaliation. On March 2, 2018, a federal jury in the Southern District of New York found in her favor and awarded $13.4 million, of which $11.7 million was awarded as punitive damages. This remarkable result offers a learning opportunity to employers on the importance of internal investigation of sexual harassment claims in the new #MeToo workplace.

Plaintiff was employed by a major sugar processor as a factory maintenance worker. In 2008, her employer hired a new supervisor Tyrone Smith to manage Plaintiff’s group. Shortly thereafter, Smith allegedly began a constant tirade of sexually offensive comments, at times in front of others, directed at Plaintiff. Plaintiff alleged that Smith stared at her breasts and other personal parts of her body and would close doors at work, trapping her to stay with him. After she rejected his advances, Smith allegedly retaliated against her by blocking her opportunities to earn overtime pay and assigning her to cleaning work for her male counterparts, telling Plaintiff that it was “her duty as a woman to clean.”  Plaintiff sought psychiatric help and complained to upper management, who assigned an HR representative from a different facility to investigate Plaintiff’s claims. The result of that investigation was to find that Plaintiff’s claims were unfounded.

At trial, Plaintiff characterized the company’s internal investigation as cursory and incomplete. Immediately after opening arguments, Plaintiff called three employees that the HR investigation failed to interview, all of whom corroborated Plaintiff’s allegations. Even before Plaintiff testified, jurors were being made aware of the alleged defects in the employer’s investigation, thus exposing the employer to the risk that jurors would find the employer not to be credible even as Plaintiff’s presentation to the jury was beginning. While it would be speculative to suggest that the poor quality of the employer’s investigation led to the jury’s extraordinary award, certainly a careful and detailed investigatory process would have helped the employer in Mayo-Coleman to show that it took her claims seriously and reached a reasonable conclusion based on the facts. Employers coping with allegations of sexual harassment should consider retaining investigators who are experienced in witness interview techniques and related tools to ensure that internal investigations are based on a well-developed factual record.

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