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Estate and Elder Law

Bullock v. Philip Morris–Increased Punitive Damages Allowed for Reprehensible Conduct and Physical or Mental Injuries

By David W. Tate

In Bullock v. Philip Morris (California Court of Appeal, Second District, Case No. B222596) [enhanced version available to subscribers / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law] the court  affirmed a punitive damage award that is 16 times compensatory damages. The jury  ultimately awarded Bullock $850,000 in compensatory damages and $13.8 million in  punitive damages.  As you may be aware, pursuant to recent case law guideposts  punitive damage awards generally are allowed in the range of 3 to 4 times  compensatory damages and as an outside measure should not exceed 9 times compensatory damages as punitive damages must bear reasonable relation to compensatory damages.

I have included this case  discussion because punitive damages are warranted in some elder abuse cases, and  some of the justifying factors in Bullock also are present in select elder abuse cases.

Betty Bullock smoked cigarettes for 45 years from 1956 until she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001. In 2001, Bullock filed suit against Philip Morris. Bullock sought to recover damages for personal injuries based on products liability, fraud and other theories. Bullock died in 2003.

Pursuant to the holding in Bullock, in some cases there are exceptional factual circumstances that warrant the allowance of larger punitive damages as a multiple of compensatory damages: the evidence indicated that the defendant knew that the consensus was that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and other serious diseases, and that smokers suffered lung cancer and other serious diseases at rates far greater than nonsmokers-despite that knowledge, defendant conducted a campaign to obscure and deny the truth. The court also held that larger punitive damages were warranted because of the defendant's wealthy financial condition, the profitability of its misconduct, defendant knew and hid for a long period of time the dangers of its product, and the injuries caused to plaintiff were physical or mental in nature, not economic.  According to the court, the evidence indicated that defendant's behavior was "extremely reprehensible."

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