In March, a St. Louis City jury determined that the Board of Police Commissioners retaliated against a former police officer after she made complaints of sexual harassment by co-workers. The victim, Tanisha Ross-Paige, states, and the jury agreed, that after she complained about unwanted sexual harassment, she was given unfavorable shits, time off requests were denied, and she as evaluated improperly in various performance reviews.
After a jury decides the issue of liability in the State of Missouri, in this case the jury decided the Board of Police Commissioners were at-fault through the conduct of their employees, the jury must next decide how much money is required to make up for the harm that was done to the victim. In this case the jury decided $300,000 was required to properly reimburse Ms. Ross-Paige for ordeal. This form of damages is called ‘compensatory’ damages.
After their award of compensatory damages, the jury was then asked to determine if the conduct of the Board of Police Commissioners was deserving of punishment. If a jury decides that the wrongdoer’s conduct is deserving of punishment in order to deter similar actions in the future, they then decide on the proper ‘punitive’ damage amount. Punitive damages are meant to punish. When deciding how to punish a corporation, the amount of money required to deter them from the same conduct in the future must be appropriate. For instance, if a company makes 1 billion dollars a year and they are fined $500,000, it will likely not deter them from doing the wrongful act again. They will simply factor the fine into their budget and the negative behavior will continue. A punitive damage fine must be sufficient to deter the wrongdoer’s future behavior. In this case the jury awarded $2,750,000 in punitive damages.
By way of background, jurors are not allowed to conduct background research about the case while serving on the jury. If they do and it affects a material aspect of the case, the jury’s verdict can be reduced and/or set aside. In addition, in Missouri, there are sometimes ‘caps’ or limits on certain types of jury awards which the jury is not allowed to hear about at trial. For instance, until recently, a jury could sit through an entire 2 week medical malpractice jury trial, listen to all the evidence and find that the victim deserved $5,000,000 in non economic damages for their loss and suffering. However, after the trial was over and the jurors were gone, the verdict would be reduced to $300,000 (Missouri’s then cap on non-economic medical malpractice damages which was recently struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court.) in a backroom fashion. Depending on the type of case and type of damages at issue, Missouri law may ‘cap’ the maximum amount you may recover, despite a jury award and your constitutional right to a fair trial by jury. (It should also be noted that virtually all caps on damages are being challenged by constitutional rights activists and injury victims across Missouri and throughout America.)
In the case of Ms. Ross-Paige against the Board of Police Commissioners, it is estimated that the $7,500,000 jury award will be reduced to around $3,000,000. However, the case does not end their. In this particular case a juror has alleged that when the jury was in deliberation, he Google searched about the issue of punitive damages, and then informed the other jurors of his findings. The lawyers for the Board of Police Commissioners has filed to overturn the verdict and obtain a new trial based on this information.
SIDE NOTE: I encourage all readers to take some time to learn what really happened in the infamous Hot Coffee case against McDonald’s involving punitive damages. Very few people know what really happened, and you will be shocked to discover how misinformed you may be about this case.
Jeremy Hollingshead, one of the attorneys for Ms. Ross-Paige, has filed court documents which set forth the Missouri Supreme Court wrongful death case of Travis v. Stone, in which the court determined that there is a general rule in Missouri that a juror’s testimony about jury misconduct which allegedly affects deliberations shall not be used to alter the jury’s verdict. The case is currently pending in front of St. Louis City Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson and a hearing is scheduled for June 9th, on the issues raised.
Punitive damages play an extremely important role in our judicial system. If companies were not punished for their harmful conduct, things would never change. Even today, many corporations would rather continue to undertake negligent conduct and place others in harms way if the end result is increased profit. For instance, if a drug company can hide evidence of harmful drug effects, push a dangerous drug by the FDA and sell it to millions of innocent people, make 5 billion dollars, knowing full well that they will be caught and fined 1 billion dollars, why not do it? Punitive damages is the reason why not. Punitive damages is an incredibly powerful tool at the disposal of the community to keep corporate abuse in check.