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Evidence of a manufacturer's good faith effort to comply with all government regulations is evidence of conduct inconsistent with the mental state requisite for punitive damages.
Chad and Jessica Malcolm (collectively Malcolms) sued Evenflo Company, Inc. (Evenflo) after their four-month-old son Tyler suffered fatal brain injuries in a rollover car accident. The Malcolms alleged that the Evenflo "On My Way" (OMW) child safety seat contained a design defect that caused Tyler's death. The Malcolms asserted strict liability in tort. During pre-trial, the district court granted the Malcolms’ motion in limine to exclude arguments by Evenflo that the OMW model 207 complied with the safety standards. During trial, the Malcolms presented an expert witness who testified on the recall and test failures of an earlier OMW car seat model. The jury awarded the Malcolms $ 6,697,491 in compensatory damages. The jury also awarded the Malcolms $ 3,700,000 in punitive damages pursuant to § 27-1-221(7)(a), MCA. Evenflo appealed, arguing that the district court had improperly excluded evidence of Evenflo’s compliance with the safety standards for the purpose of awarding punitive damages.
Under the circumstances, did the district court err in excluding Evenlo’s evidence of compliance with the safety standards for the purpose of awarding compensatory and punitive damages?
No, as to compensatory damages. Yes, with respect to punitive damages.
On appeal, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded the manufacturer's evidence that the car seat complied with safety standards for the purpose of compensatory damages. The safety standards addressed only minimum levels of performance in frontal impacts. The dynamic forces unleashed in a high-speed rollover collision were very different from those present in a frontal crash. However, the court held that the trial court abused its discretion by prohibiting the manufacturer from introducing evidence of the car seat's compliance with the safety standards for the purpose of considering the appropriateness of punitive damages under Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-221(2). According to the court, evidence of a manufacturer's good faith effort to comply with all government regulations was evidence of conduct inconsistent with the mental state requisite for punitive damages.