Monday, October 15, 2007

Punitive Damages in Nevada Prempro Trial

A jury in Reno today lashed Wyeth with a $99 million punitive damages verdict in a three-plaintiff Prempro lawsuit in Nevada state court.  The massive award was predictable given how events unfolded in the case last week.  On Wednesday, the jury rendered a compensatory damages verdict totaling $134.5 million.  When Judge Robert Perry learned that the jury was confused about compensatory and punitive damages, he ordered the jury to reconsider the amounts, and the jury came back with a total compensation verdict of $35 million.  Today, the jury returned to consider punitive damages, and unsurprisingly hit Wyeth with essentially the same amount it had intended as punishment last week. An AP story on the Houston Chronicle website -- Punitive Damages Awarded in Wyeth Case -- reports on today's punitive damages verdict:

Jurors awarded $99 million in punitive damages Monday to three Nevada women who claimed hormone replacement drugs distributed by pharmaceutical giant Wyeth caused their breast cancer. A Wyeth attorney said the award would be appealed. ...

After lawyers for both sides gave closing arguments again on Monday, the judge instructed the five-man, two-women jury to move to the punitive stage of the trial to consider whether the company's actions were so "reprehensible" that additional damages were warranted to punish it and discourage such behavior in the future. ...

The jurors returned at 1 p.m. Monday, two hours after they began deliberations following an impassioned plea by one of the plaintiffs' lawyers to return a large enough judgment to "get the attention and hold responsible" a company with a net worth of $14.6 billion.


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It seems to me that Wyeth has good grounds for a mistrial motion here. One argument would be to see whether Nevada has rules, as many states do, that prohibit jurors from discussing the case while it's ongong. That's to prevent jurors from pre-committing to one side or the other without adequate evidence and without adequate instruction by the judge on the legal standard. Here, the jury seems to have done both -- it delivered a verdict on punitive damages before it had heard witnesses from the punitive damages phase, or been instructed by the judge about the standard for punitive damages. The proof that they were pre-committed is that they delivered exactly the same total verdict later on. Moreover, if the judge refuses the mistrial, one might ask whether the jury's decisionmaking process comports with the punitive-damages due-process guarantees recently articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Williams -- here, the jury essentially rendered its punitive-damages verdict before being instructed about what harm it could and could not take into account.

Posted by: Byron Stier | Oct 15, 2007 4:19:52 PM

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