A sharply divided Utah Supreme Court appears to have established some new ground rules on the determination of punitive damages.
In a 3-2 opinion written by Justice Michael Zimmerman, the court ruled this week that while evidence of a defendant's wealth is a relevant factor in the awarding of punitive damages, "it is not a necessary factor."Justice Leonard Russon called the ruling a reversal of a "long held" standard and warned that juries won't be able to fairly impose punitive damages without knowing how much the defendant is worth.
The ruling was handed down in a case involving a woman who was struck and injured by a sliding car in an icy Wal-Mart parking lot in Cedar City. Desiree Hall said in her suit that Wal-Mart was negligent for failing to maintain the parking lot in a safe manner.
A 5th District Court jury found Wal-Mart liable and awarded Hall $19,800 for her injuries plus $25,000 in punitive damages. Wal-Mart objected to the punitive award, contending Hall's lawyers had failed to present the required evidence of "relative wealth."
Fifth District Judge J. Philip Eves denied Wal-Mart's motion. He said although there was no evidence regarding the relative wealth of the nation's largest retail chain, "the jury knows enough about the wealth of Wal-Mart to be able to determine whether or not punitive damages would be appropriate and in what amount roughly."
Wal-Mart appealed, citing the Utah Supreme Court's long history of striking punitive damages that were awarded without evidence of the defendant's net worth or income.
"Although it is true that some of our cases seemingly place great importance on evidence of relative wealth, we have never held that an award of punitive damages is completely precluded in its absence," Zimmerman replied.
He said the precedence cited by Wal-Mart involved cases where the plaintiffs challenged the amount of the punitive awards. Here, Wal-Mart wasn't arguing that the punitive award was excessive, only that evidence of relative wealth is a technical prerequisite, he said.
Where the amount of an award is at issue, the plaintiff must introduce evidence of the defendant's relative wealth or risk having the award struck down, Zimmerman said.
Russon, who was joined in his dissent by Chief Justice Richard Howe, said the purpose of punitive damages is to punish and deter. To achieve that result certain factors must be considered, including relative wealth, he wrote.
"An award of punitive damages of $10,000 could totally destroy one defendant financially while hardly making a ripple against another defendant," Russon wrote.
And he said you can't go by appearances. "One defendant may appear to have great wealth while actually being on the verge of bankruptcy, while another may actually have great wealth but appear to have little."
He said Wal-Mart may well appear to have vast resources, but no evidence of that was introduced in the trial.
"If we allow ourselves to make such rulings without evidence, who will be next?" Russon asked. "Where do we draw the line? I am concerned not only about Wal-Mart but also about the next defendant who will be subject to the new rule set forth by the majority opinion."