Document Category:
State: Ohio
Subject Matter: Punitive Damages
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Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision related to a $1,930,000 verdict in September 2011 against an
assisted living facility in Ohio operated by Emeritus Senior Living.
 While the Sixth Circuit did not overturn the jury verdict, the decision
has great significance related to claims for punitive damages in
personal injury cases of all kinds, including medical
malpractice/nursing home cases.

As to the underlying case, Defendants had the case removed from state
court to federal court.  Plaintiff claimed the facility improperly gave
decedent a medication for diabetes even though the decedent was not
diabetic.  Plaintiff claimed this caused hypoglycemia and encephalopathy
and eventually decedent’s death.  The jury awarded $400,000 in
compensatory damages for the survivorship claim pursuant to Ohio R.C.
2305.21 (damages to decedent prior to death, like pain and suffering,
medical bills, lost wages, etc.) and $280,000 in wrongful death damages
pursuant to R.C. 2125.02 (damages to beneficiaries of the estate for
loss of support, loss of society, loss of prospective inheritance, loss
of society and mental anguish and funeral bills).  In addition, the jury
awarded $1,250,000 in punitive damages.   In a post trial motion, the
facility moved to reduce the punitive damage award to two times the
compensatory damages on the survivorship claim, i.e. $800,000; the trial
court denied the motion.  The facility appealed this denial.

Pursuant to R.C. 2125.21(D), punitive damages are limited to two times
compensatory damages.  The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the
constitutionality of this cap on punitive damages in Arbino v. Johnson
& Johnson (2007), 116 Ohio St.3d 468, 2007-Ohio-6948
.  What had not
been addressed by any appellate court in Ohio or the Ohio Supreme Court
was how compensatory damages are calculated in cases involving both a
survivorship claim and a wrongful death claim.  The wrongful death
statute does not specifically provide for punitive damages.  Since a
claim for wrongful death did not exist at common law, the statute is in
derogation of common law and is to be strictly construed.  Therefore,
the Ohio Supreme Court in Rubeck v. Huffman (1978), 54 Ohio St.2d 20,
374 N.E.2d 411
held that punitive damages are not available in a
wrongful death claim.

This left open the question of whether the cap on punitive damages was
based on the gross damages or limited to survivorship damages when there
are claims for both wrongful death and survivorship.  The Sixth Circuit
noted that the claims are distinct even though both are brought by the
representative of the estate.  The Sixth Circuit noted that “…the Ohio
Supreme Court has emphasized that they are separate and independent
causes of action.  See Peters v. Columbus Steel Castings Co., 115 Ohio
St.3d 134, 138 (2007).”
 You might recognize this decision as the one
that held a decedent could not bind his/her beneficiaries to a mandatory
arbitration agreement.  In any event, because punitive damages are not
allowed under the wrongful death act, the Sixth Circuit indicated the
cap on punitive damages was based on the survivorship damages only and
reduced the punitive damage award to $800,000 (two times the
compensatory damages of $400,000 on the survivorship claim. 

Summary Provided by Paul McCartney, Rendigs, Fry, Kiley & Dennis – Cincinnati, OH 

 


Document Author: US Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit
Firm/Company: US Court of Appeals
Document Date: December 2012
Search Tags: punitive damages caps wringful death
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