One week, two awards of punitive damages upheld –

punitive-damagesTwice in one week, the Fifth Court affirmed substantial awards of exemplary damages. I anticipate posts in the days ahead about the details of these cases, but for now, simply note these important holdings:

  • Bombardier Aerospace Corp. v. SPEP Aircraft Holdings LLC, No. 05-16-00086-CV (June 22, 2017) (mem. op.), a case about the condition of an expensive private jet, affirmed “a verdict in appellees’ favor on both claims and awarded $2,694,160 in actual damages and $5,388,320 in exemplary damages,” and
  • Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Militello, No. 05-15-01252-CV (June 20, 2017) (mem. op.) affirmed (after a remittitur) an award of approximately $2.7 million  and roughly $1 million in actual damages.

 

Fraud claims affirmed for “dream home” gone wrong

hale v bishop house 2The Hales sued their homebuilder for fraud and violation of the DTPA, alleging serious problems with the foundation of their Rockwall home (right).  They substantially succeeded at trial, and the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed in large part in Bishop Abbey Homes, Ltd. v. Hale, No. 05-14-00137-CV (Dec. 16, 2015) (mem. op.)  In particular, the Court affirmed as to limitations – a significant issue in this long-simmering dispute – noting that “each time the Hales raised a concern about the foundation, they were assured by one of appellants’ experts that the foundation was not the cause of the problems the Hales observed.”  The court also affirmed as to sufficiency challenges to liability, several claims of improper closing argument, and a challenge to the the basis of the exemplary damages award based on constitutional and Kraus factors. The court requested a remittitur as to (a) mental anguish damages (for sufficiency reasons) above $208,856 per plaintiff; and (b) a portion of the additional/exemplary damages award, based on the applicable cap and the conclusion that the total award “exceeds the guidelines set forth in [Bennett v. Reynolds, 315 S.W.3d 867 (Tex. 2010)] and [Tony Gullo Motors I, LP v. Chapa, 212 S.W.3d 299 (Tex. 2006)] for the type of harm suffered by the Hales as a result of appellants’ conduct.”

A Good Problem to Have

An employer sued its former employee for misappropriating funds from the company, alleging multiple causes of action, including breach of contract, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the employer on all counts and awarded economic and punitive damages.  The trial court also awarded the employer attorneys’ fees based on its breach of contract claim.

On appeal, among other things, the employee argued that the trial court’s damages award violated the one-satisfaction rule, which limits a plaintiff who suffers a single injury to damages based on only one cause of action.  The Court of Appeals agreed, noting that “when a defendant’s acts result in a single injury and the jury returns favorable findings on two or more theories of liability, the plaintiff has the right to a judgment on the theory entitling him to the greatest or most favorable relief.”  Consequently, the Court set aside the attorneys’ fees and statutory damages awarded by the trial court, and awarded the employer economic and exemplary damages under its breach of fiduciary duty claim (which does not provide for the recovery of attorneys’ fees) because that result gave the employer its largest recovery.

McCullough v. Scarbrough, Medlin & Assocs.

De Minimis Discrimination

Plaintiff Shabaz Din was born in Pakistan, where he became a doctor and specialized in ophthalmology. After emigrating to the United States in the 1990s, Din took a job training medical assistants with ATI Career Training Center. When the position of Medical Assistants Program Director came open, Din applied for it. ATI chose to go with a doctor of osteopathy instead. That doctor was soon replaced by a different candidate with only a vocational degree, followed by yet another new hire who had not graudated from college. Din filed a complaint with the EEOC, and ATI fired him shortly thereafter. Din sued for national origin discrimination and retaliation, and the jury awarded him damages for back pay, emotional pain and suffering, and punitives.

The Court of Appeals took up several issues in its determination of the case. First, it dismissed Din’s cause of action for retaliation because he had not raised that issue in the underlying administrative proceeding as required by Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code (formerly, the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act). As to the damages, the Court held that there was no evidence that Din had suffered any compensible emotional pain and suffering due to the failure to promote, and it therefore vacated that portion of the judgment. The Court did find that there was evidence of back-pay damages, but nowhere near enough to sustain the jury’s award of $83,000, leading to a remand for additional proceedings on both liability and damages for the back-pay issue. Finally, the Court of Appeals reviewed the evidence supporting the jury’s finding of malice or reckless indifference and found it was legally insufficient to support an award of punitive damages. Although there was evidence that the ATI manager had intended to cause Dim “some harm” in denying his promotion, that evidence did not show an intent to cause “substantial injury or harm” because the promotion would have resulted in only a small raise in Dim’s hourly salary.

ATI Enters., Inc. v. Din, No. 05-11-01522-CV