$2.5 Million Punitive Damages Award Vacated in Kentucky Product Liability Case

by Mandy Hicks

By Jessica Surber, Attorney
English, Lucas, Priest and Owsley, LLP

When a person is injured because of a defective or unreasonably dangerous product, he or she may be entitled to damages such as payment of medical expenses, reimbursement of lost wages, and compensation for pain and suffering.

Although it is the exception rather than the rule, there is also the possibility of punitive damages in some cases. In order to qualify for a punitive damages award, a plaintiff must show particularly egregious conduct on the part of the defendant (typically, the manufacturer, distributor, or retail seller of the product).

In the recent case of Nissan Motor Company v. Maddox, the Supreme Court of Kentucky was called upon to decide whether the issue of punitive damages had been properly sent to the jury in a product liability case.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was a woman who was injured in a car accident in 2009.  The woman had to be extracted from the vehicle and airlifted to the hospital following the wreck. Her injuries included fractures to her ribs, vertebrae, and hip. She underwent some 75 surgeries, spending 139 days in the hospital. She also had a stroke and suffered an infection during her treatment.

The woman’s husband was also in the couple’s vehicle (a 2001 Nissan Pathfinder) at the time of the accident. The husband suffered a fractured foot but no other serious injuries. The drunk driver who hit the couple’s car head-on was unrestrained and was killed on impact.

Proceedings in the Trial Court

In 2010, the woman filed a product liability action against the defendant manufacturer in the Lincoln County Circuit Court, alleging that her injuries were caused by a defectively designed restraint system, as well as the company’s alleged failure to warn her about the limitations of the system.

In particular, the woman alleged that the seatbelt system was defective because it was designed to protect occupants of a median weight (the husband was of average weight, but the plaintiff’s weight was above the 95th percentile). She also averred that the front passenger seat’s design and construction were defective and that the manufacturer should have warned her of the danger of the vehicle for a person of her size.

The case was tried to a jury, which found in the plaintiff’s favor and assessed 70% of the fault in the accident to the manufacturer (the other 30% was assessed to the drunk driver). The jury also found that the manufacturer was responsible for $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages.

The Case on Appeal

The intermediate appellate court affirmed. On further review by the state’s highest court, the court reversed the lower courts on the issue of punitive damages and vacated the trial court’s judgment on that issue.

According to the court, it was inappropriate to instruct the jury that it was authorized to award punitive damages against the manufacturer because the plaintiff failed to indicate that there was clear and convincing evidence that the manufacturer had exhibited reckless or wanton disregard for the plaintiff or others similarly situated.

Having found that the jury should not have been permitted to assess any punitive damages, the court did not reach the issue of the constitutionality of the particular award by the jury.

If You Have Been Injured by a Bad Product

Manufacturers, sellers, and distributors can be held liable when a dangerous or defective product causes an injury or death. If you have been hurt or lost a loved one due to a faulty product, the product liability lawyers at English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley can help you get started on your case. Call 270-781-6500 for a free consultation. We represent clients throughout Kentucky and Tennessee, including Bowling Green, Springfield, and Hopkinsville.

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