TortsProf Blog

Editor: Christopher J. Robinette
Southwestern Law School

Friday, March 1, 2024

OR: Punies Verdict Reduced by Gore Guideposts

In Trebelhorn v. Prime Wimbledon, SPE, LLC, 372 Or. 27 (2024), the Oregon Supreme Court used the Gore guideposts to affirm the reduction of a punitive damages verdict in a premises liability case. 

  • A plaintiff tenant sued the landlord of his apartment building after sustaining injuries to his meniscus (knee) when an elevated walkway collapsed under him and his "leg punched through a section of elevated walkway that had been weakened by dry rot." There were obvious and severe structural problems with the apartment building, the defendants knew about them, and failed to fix the problems in a timely fashion, leading to the tenant's injuries.
  • The landlord admitted negligence and the trial focused on damages. The plaintiff won at trial and was awarded $45,000 in economic damages, $250,000 in noneconomic damages, and a s10,000,000 in punitive damages by the jury.
  • After post-trial motions in which the defendants successfully argued that the punitive damages violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourtheenth Amendment, the court reduced punitive damages to $2,660,373, determining that the original punitive damages at a ratio of 33:1 was excessive. The court of appeals affirmed.

The supreme court also affirmed.

  • Up until now, the supreme court has only applied these factors to cases involving purely economic harm. The court stated that "the evidence permitted the jury to draw reasonable inferences about defendants’ conduct that suggest a high degree of reprehensibility." The plaintiff also suffered physical harm, and thus there was no clear precedent to follow.
  • Ultimately, however, the court held that, despite the reprehensibility of the defendants' negligence and the existence of physical harm, the "single-digit ratio" (9:1) limitation to punitive damages proffered in Campbell is still a good determination of punitive damages allowable without violating the defendants' constitutional rights to due process, even if a plaintiff suffers physical harm/damages.
  • Predictably, the court refused to hold that a 9:1 ratio is a bright-line rule for such limitations and left the possibility for a higher ratio when a defendant's actions are "extraordinarily reprehensible."

Thanks to Andres Navarro.

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