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While Fla. Stat. § 768.73(1) (1997) provides an initial cap on punitive damages of three times the amount of compensatory damages, it also provides for an exception to the cap where clear and convincing evidence establishes that the plaintiff is entitled to the excess verdict. Although it is not defined in the statute, the standard "clear and convincing evidence" has been held to be an intermediate level of proof that entails both a qualitative and quantitative standard. The evidence must be credible; the memories of the witnesses must be clear and without confusion; and the sum total of the evidence must be of sufficient weight to convince the trier of fact without hesitancy.
Respondent cancer victim, Deward Ballard, brought a products liability action against petitioner Owens-Corning alleging that his cancer was caused by long-term exposure to Owens-Corning’s asbestos products. At trial, the jury assessed $ 1.8 million in compensatory damages and $ 31 million in punitive damages against petitioner. The judgment and punitive damages award were upheld by the appellate court, so Owens-Corning applied for further review.
Was the award for punitive damages proper?
In approving the appellate court's decision, the court ruled that, while Fla. Stat. § 768.73 (1997) provided an initial cap on punitive damages of three times the amount of compensatory damages, the award of punitive damages here, which was nearly 18 times that of the compensatory damages, overcame that statutory presumption of excessiveness because clear and convincing evidence established that Ballard was entitled to the excess verdict. The jury was properly instructed with respect to punitive damages and the punitive award was less than two percent of Owens-Corning’s net worth. Moreover, the evidence supported the finding that Owens-Corning showed a flagrant disregard for the safety of others that was more egregious than the wanton and wilful standard.