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Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. - 119 Cal. App. 3d 757, 174 Cal. Rptr. 348 (1981)

Rule:

The California statutes and decisions bar the recovery of punitive damages in a wrongful death action. Punitive damages are, however, recoverable in an action under Cal. Prob. Code § 573 by the personal representative of the decedent's estate if the decedent survived the accident, however briefly, or if the property of the decedent was damaged or lost before death. There need not be a pending action at the time of death; it is sufficient that the claim arose before death. 

Facts:

An automobile manufactured by defendant Ford Motor Co. unexpectedly stalled on a freeway and erupted into flames when it was rear-ended by a car proceeding in the same direction. The driver of the stalled car suffered fatal burns and a passenger suffered severe and permanently disfiguring burns on his face and entire body. The passenger and the heirs of the driver sued defendant on the theory of strict liability for a design defect in the car's gas tank, and, following a six-month jury trial in California state court, verdicts were returned in favor of plaintiffs. The passenger was awarded over $ 2 million compensatory damages and $ 125 million punitive damages, while the heirs were awarded over $ 550,000 in compensatory damages. On defendant's motion for a new trial, the passenger was required to remit all but $ 3.5 million of the punitive damages award as a condition of denial of the motion. Defendant appealed from the judgment and from an order denying its motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to punitive damages contending that the punitive damages award was statutorily unauthorized and constitutionally invalid. 

Issue:

Was the punitive damages award proper?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The judgment awarding punitive damages was affirmed as reduced because the reduced punitive damage award was reasonable and just, and was not excessive in light of its deterrent purpose, the passenger's wealth, and the size of the compensatory awards. The court also held that a rational justification existed for the legislative denial of the right to seek punitive damages for wrongful death actions. The court rejected defendant's contention that the jury should have been instructed that plaintiff had the burden of proving "malice" by "clear and convincing evidence. On the passenger's appeal, the court held the trial court's order conditionally granting defendant a new trial on the issue of punitive damages was not erroneous. With respect to the heirs' appeal, the court held the wrongful death statute (Code Civ. Proc., § 377) precluded recovery of punitive damages, and, as applied to the heirs, whose decedent died with a surviving claim for punitive damages enforceable by their personal representative, did not deny them equal protection of the law. 

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