SCOTUS refuses to review Flax punitive damages

by Ted Frank on May 29, 2009

I expressed skepticism this summer that the Exxon Shipping v. Baker decision was a positive sign for the Court’s punitive damages jurisprudence. After the replay of Philip Morris v. Williams and, now, the Court’s denial of certiorari in DaimlerChrysler v. Flax this week, I can say I was right.

As readers of Overlawyered know, the Tennessee Supreme Court reinstated $13.3 million of punitive damages over a good-faith dispute over a van’s seat back design (in an accident caused by a drunk driver), giving no credit to the fact that the design in question was safer than federal safety standards, or to Exxon Shipping’s suggestion that punitive damages greater than a 1:1 ratio were possibly constitutionally inappropriate where compensatory damages were substantial and the defendant’s actions were not intentional or done for profit. As I described the case back then:

In 2001, Louis Stockell, driving his pickup at 70 mph, twice the speed limit, rear-ended a Chrysler minivan. Physics being what they are, the front passenger seat in the van collapsed backwards and the passenger’s head struck and fatally injured 8-month old Joshua Flax. The rest of the family walked away from the horrific accident. Plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Butler argued that Chrysler, which already designed its seats above federal standards, should be punished for not making the seats stronger — never mind that a stronger and stiffer seat would result in more injuries from other kinds of crashes because it wouldn’t absorb any energy from the crash. (Rear-end collisions are responsible for only 3% of auto fatalities.) Apparently car companies are expected to anticipate which type of crash a particular vehicle will encounter, and design accordingly.

(h/t Cutting)

{ 4 comments }

1 William Nuesslein 05.31.09 at 7:29 am

Are the judges showing empathy for the family of the child?

2 J.D. 06.01.09 at 4:00 pm

So instead of just suing the driver of the car that rear-ended him, they go after the deeper pockets with Chrysler… and on the guise that the seat should’ve held up better… in a 70mph crash. What a prince of a guy this sounds like.

3 Oblio_A 06.17.09 at 2:38 pm

Yes, actually, car companies should be expected to ‘anticipate various types of crashes a particular vehicle will encounter, and design accordingly’ – it’s called “safety research”. Furthermore, it’s not the 1930′s anymore…seatback’s in modern automobiles should not ever fail.

4 Oblio_A 06.17.09 at 2:46 pm

You conveniently fail to mention that though the drunk driver was speeding at the time, the minivan was also moving forward and the change in velocity was only 17 to 20 mph. The flimsy seats in question were known, for many years, by Chrysler internals to fail.
If your readers can handle the actual facts of the case, they can read them here: http://www.butlerwooten.com/CM/Custom/FlaxVerdict.asp

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