Missouri Supreme Court Invalidates State’s Legislative Cap on Punitive Damages

Behrens_MGuest Commentary

by Mark A. Behrens, Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P.*

On September 9, the Supreme Court of Missouri struck down the state’s legislative limit on the amount of punitive damages that can be imposed on defendants. Under the cap, punitive damages could not exceed the greater of $500,000 or five times the net amount of the judgment. Lewellen v. Franklin arose from an unremarkable fraudulent misrepresentation and unlawful merchandising suit. In finding that the statutory damages cap violated Lewellen’s right to a jury trial, the Court followed a 2012 decision invalidating the state’s cap on non-economic damages in medical liability cases, Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers.

This holding is an extreme outlier.  Virtually every other state court that has considered the constitutionality of punitive damages caps has held that such laws do not violate the jury trial right because the jury’s fact-finding function is preserved.  The jury continues to resolve disputed facts with respect to liability and assessment of legally available remedies.  Once the jury has decided these issues, the constitutional mandate is met—or at least is virtually every other state in the country.  Nationally, both state and federal courts consistently have upheld the constitutionality of punitive damages caps. Continue reading

A Swing and a Miss by the Missouri Supreme Court

Tortfeasor?

Tortfeasor?

Have you ever been to a sporting event where the mascot and other cheerleaders shoot t-shirts and toss hot dogs into the crowd during lulls in the action? Fun for the whole family, right? Well thanks to a ruling from the Missouri Supreme Court, don’t be surprised if this tradition becomes a thing of the past.

In a unanimous ruling last month overturning a local jury’s verdict in favor of my hometown Kansas City Royals, Judge Paul C. Wilson and his Missouri Supreme Court colleagues decided, as a matter of law, that the risk of being injured by a hot dog toss is not one of the risks inherent in watching a Royals home game at Kauffman Stadium. John Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corporation.

You’ve got to be kidding me. Baseball and hot dogs go together like mom and apple pie. At a professional baseball game where balls, broken bats, and even fielders fly into the stands, and patrons must be alert at all times to avoid injury, the risk of being injured by a flying hot dog is somehow excluded?   That decision defies logic and common sense.

A baseball game is not merely about what happens during the contest. It is a full-scale entertainment experience. For the prices that major league teams charge for games these days, they have to offer more entertainment than just the action between the lines—however thrilling this season is for long-suffering Royals fans. In the (hot) dog days of summer, baseball fans assume the risk of the sideshow right along with the main event.

Frequent spectator John Coomer allegedly suffered a detached retina when he failed to see a free hot dog coming his way. That is no laughing matter. And so he sued. But the antics of Sluggerrr, the adorable lion mascot who was not around when I was a kid—including his tossing free hot dogs to fans in the stands—is very much a part of today’s entertainment package. Continue reading

There’s Nothing “New” about “Lone Pine” Orders for Active Case Management

faulkFeatured Expert Column − Complex Serial and Mass Tort Litigation

by Richard O. Faulk, Hollingsworth LLP*

To listen to the plaintiffs’ bar, you’d think that “Lone Pine” orders were a novelty recently conjured out of “thin air” by creative defense lawyers—or a device unsupported by any significant precedents. But although those orders may seem new to the uninitiated, they have deep roots in the history of active case management.

Many lawyers know—or have learned the hard way—why these case management tools are called “Lone Pine” orders, and what they are intended to accomplish. In Lore v. Lone Pine Corporation, No. L-03306-85, 1986 WL 637507 (N.J. Sup.Ct. Nov. 18, 1986), the plaintiffs claimed injuries resulting from contamination allegedly coming from a landfill. When the defendants presented a government investigation that found no offsite contamination, the court required the plaintiffs to make a preliminary showing of exposure, injury, and causation before allowing full discovery to proceed. This ruling led to other cases which recognized the propriety of “Lone Pine” orders when doubt existed “over what medical condition or disease, if any, can be causally related to the toxic agent exposure alleged by each plaintiff.”2 Lawrence G. Cetrulo, Toxic Torts Litigation Guide § 13:49 (2013). Since then, “Lone Pine” order have proliferated, not only in toxic tort litigation, but also in other types of cases.See generally, David B. Weinstein and Christopher Torres, Managing the Complex: A Brief Survey of Lone Pine Orders, 34 Westlaw Envt’l J. 1 (Aug. 21, 2013) (providing extensive list of categorized cases). Continue reading

The California Supreme Court’s Iskanian Opinion: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

jenkinsGuest Commentary

by Kirk C. Jenkins, Sedgwick LLP*

On June 26, 2014, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles LLC. The decision was something of a mixed bag for the defense bar: two major steps forward in the California Supreme Court’s class action jurisprudence, but one step back of uncertain significance.

The plaintiff in Iskanian worked as a driver for the defendant in 2004 and 2005. Halfway through his employment, he signed an agreement providing that “any and all claims” arising out of his employment would be submitted to binding arbitration before a neutral arbitrator. The plaintiff agreed not to bring a representative action either in court or before the arbitrator.

A year after leaving his employment, the plaintiff filed a putative class action complaint, alleging failure to pay overtime, provide meal and rest breaks, reimburse business expenses and various other violations of the Labor Code. The defendant moved to compel arbitration and the trial court granted the motion. But while the matter was pending before the Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court decided Gentry v. Superior Court, holding that most class action waivers were unenforceable in employment cases. The defendant dropped its motion to compel. Continue reading

In Oklahoma, Class Action Fairness Act Comes Up Short, But Daimler v. Bauman Does The Trick

OklahomaConcerns that businesses were being victimized by abusive lawsuits filed in state courts—in particular, nationwide class actions and mass actions—led Congress to adopt the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) in 2005. Congress intended that CAFA ease removal of class and mass actions from state to federal court. The law has had mixed results in that regard, , as plaintiffs’ lawyers have devised a variety of clever ways to evade CAFA and thereby ensure that their nationwide suits can remain in state court. If a recent Oklahoma state-court decision is any indication, however, the plaintiffs’ bar may finally have met its match: the Supreme Court’s January 2014 decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman. That decision imposed strict limitations on a court’s exercise of general jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants. The Oklahoma court invoked Daimler to dismiss hundreds of plaintiffs from a mass action that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit already had deemed not removable under CAFA.

The case involved product liability claims by 702 individuals from 26 States, each of whom alleged that she had suffered injuries from pelvic mesh surgical devices manufactured by Ethicon, Inc. (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson). CAFA permits removal to federal court of “mass actions” filed by 100 or more plaintiffs raising substantially similar claims. To reduce the risk of removal, the plaintiffs’ lawyers grouped the claims into 11 separate lawsuits, each containing fewer than 100 plaintiffs. Nonetheless, it was obvious that the plaintiffs wanted the cases tried together: they filed the lawsuits in a tiny Oklahoma county with only a single trial judge, thereby ensuring that all 702 claims would be heard by a single judge. They also took steps to prevent removal based on diversity of citizenship: they included at least one New Jersey resident as a plaintiff in each of the 11 lawsuits. Because the defendants have their principal places of business in New Jersey, the inclusion of one New Jersey plaintiff in each case eliminated complete diversity of citizenship and thus precluded removal based on diversity. Continue reading

Supreme Court Observations: Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund

supreme courtGuest Commentary

by Lyle Roberts, Cooley LLP

*Editor’s note: We are cross-posting this commentary from Mr. Roberts’s blog, The 10b-5 Daily, where it originally appeared. Mr. Roberts authored Washington Legal Foundation’s amicus brief in Halliburton.

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a decision in the Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund case holding that defendants can rebut the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance at the class certification stage with evidence of a lack of stock price impact. It is a 9-0 decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts, although Justice Thomas (joined by Justices Alito and Scalia) concurred only in the judgment. As discussed in a February 2010 post on this blog, Halliburton has a long history that now includes two Supreme Court decisions on class certification issues. A summary of the earlier Supreme Court decision can be found here.

Under the fraud-on-the-market presumption, reliance by investors on a misrepresentation is presumed if the misrepresentation is material and the company’s shares were traded on an efficient market that would have incorporated the information into the stock price. The fraud-on-the-market presumption is crucial to pursuing a securities fraud case as a class action—without it, the proposed class of investors would have to provide actual proof of its common reliance on the alleged misrepresentation, a daunting task for classes that can include thousands of investors.

The fraud-on-the-market presumption, however, is not part of the federal securities laws. It was judicially created by the Supreme Court in a 1988 decision (Basic v. Levinson). In Halliburton, the Court agreed to revisit that decision, but ultimately decided that there was an insufficient “special justification” for overturning its own precedent. Continue reading

Five Ways to Undo your Own Class-Action Settlement

zero dollars“This settlement is so unfair, it cannot be fixed.”

That statement marked the beginning of the end of a federal district court judge’s opinion, as well as the class-action settlement to which the opinion referred. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Judge William Alsup’s May 29 opinion in Daniels v. Aéropostale West, Inc. provides a tutorial on how not to win judicial approval of a class-action settlement.

Ms. Daniels alleged that she and other employees of the trendy apparel retailer Aéropostale were denied non-discretionary bonus pay (i.e., overtime) in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Judge Alsup conditionally certified the class in April 2013. Daniels provided notice to all employees in the class, and 594 opted into the suit. The parties filed a motion on April 24, 2014 seeking preliminary approval of a proposed settlement.

For reasons we will elaborate, Judge Alsup refused to grant approval. On June 12, the court entered an order decertifying Daniels, dismissing the claims, and extending the statute of limitations for 30 days so dismissed plaintiffs could pursue individual suits if they wish. The order noted that the parties agreed to the decertification, and that Aéropostale would make payment to any class member “who did not receive full payment for the overtime adjustment on any non-discretionary bonus earned during the collective action period.” The plaintiff’s lawyers agreed to provide notice of the action’s decertification at their own expense.

Lessons. In just 12 pages, Daniels offers litigants and their lawyers at least five lessons on how to undo your own class-action settlement.

Lesson #1: Be unresponsive to the court’s requests

In just the second paragraph of the opinion, Judge Alsup took the unusual step of noting the name and affiliation of all counsel of record in the case. This was not done to recognize their brilliant advocacy. As the rest of the opinion reveals, the lawyers, among other things, failed to provide the court with expert damage reports as required by federal procedural rules. After the parties filed their proposed settlement, the court had to ask twice for more information or corrections to the document. When pressed by Judge Alsup, Daniels’s lawyer could not state how much the plaintiff would ask the jury to reward. In addition, “Plaintiff’s counsel also failed to provide any specific information about overtime hours worked and non-discretionary bonuses paid.” Continue reading