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Thomas v. Heard

Supreme Court of Alabama

November 3, 2017

Timothy Joel Thomas
v.
Randell Heard and Donna Heard Timothy Joel Thomas
v.
Laura Wells, as guardian ad litem and next friend of M.A., a minor

         Appeal from Geneva Circuit Court (CV-14-900015), (CV-13-900145)

          ON RETURN TO REMAND

          PER CURIAM.

         Timothy Joel Thomas appealed from judgments entered in favor of Randell Heard and Donna Heard and in favor of Laura Wells, as guardian ad litem and next friend of M.A., a minor. The Heards and Wells had separately sued Thomas alleging negligence and wantonness and seeking to recover damages for injuries the Heards and M.A. had suffered as the result of an automobile accident. A jury returned verdicts in favor of Randell Heard, awarding compensatory damages of $850, 000 and punitive damages of $750, 000; in favor of Donna Heard, awarding compensatory damages of $450, 000 and punitive damages of $750, 000; and in favor of Wells, awarding compensatory damages of $500, 000 and punitive damages of $500, 000. The trial court entered judgments on the jury's verdicts. Thomas argued that the jury's punitive-damages awards were excessive under the guideposts set out by the United States Supreme Court in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559');">517 U.S. 559 (1996), and the factors set out by this Court in Hammond v. City of Gadsden, 493 So.2d 1374 (Ala. 1986), and Green Oil Co. v. Hornsby, 539 So.2d 218 (Ala. 1989), and requested a remittitur. The trial court denied Thomas's request for a remittitur without explaining its reasoning for doing so.

         On appeal, this Court affirmed the judgments as to the compensatory-damages awards but remanded the cases with instructions for the trial court to enter orders in compliance with Hammond, 493 So.2d at 1379 ("[I]t is not only appropriate, but indeed our duty, to require the trial courts to reflect in the record the reasons for interfering with a jury verdict, or refusing to do so, on grounds of excessiveness of the [punitive] damages."). See Thomas v. Heard, [Ms. 1150118, March 24, 2017] ___So. 3d ___(Ala. 2017). Pursuant to our instructions, the trial court, on May 24, 2017, after conducting a Hammond/Green Oil hearing, entered identical orders in both cases reaffirming the punitive-damages awards. The trial court made its return to this Court. The only issue now before this Court is whether the punitive-damages awards are, as Thomas contends, excessive. For the reasons given, we conclude that they are not.

         Standard of Review

         This Court reviews de novo an award of punitive damages. National Ins. Ass'n v. Sockwell, 829 So.2d 111, 135 (Ala. 2002).

         Discussion

         In reviewing a punitive-damages award, we apply the factors outlined in Green Oil, supra, and Hammond, supra, within the guideposts set out in Gore, supra, as restated in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408');">538 U.S. 408 (2003).

         The Gore guideposts are: "(1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's misconduct; (2) the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases." State Farm, 538 U.S. at 418 (citing Gore, 517 U.S. at 575). The Hammond/Green Oil factors are:

"'(1) the reprehensibility of [the defendant's] conduct; (2) the relationship of the punitive-damages award to the harm that actually occurred, or is likely to occur, from [the defendant's] conduct; (3) [the defendant's] profit from [his] misconduct; (4) [the defendant's] financial position; (5) the cost to [the plaintiff] of the litigation; (6) whether [the defendant] has been subject to criminal sanctions for similar conduct; and (7) other civil actions [the defendant] has been involved in arising out of similar conduct.'"

Ross v. Rosen-Rager, 67 So.3d 29, 41-42 (Ala. 2010) (quoting Shiv-Ram, Inc. v. McCaleb, 892 So.2d 299, 317 (Ala. 2003)(paraphrasing the Hammond/Green Oil factors)).

         In the present case, the trial court stated in its orders denying Thomas's motion for a remittitur:

"The parties agreed that there were basically three Hammond issues that applied to this case and one was not in dispute. The parties agreed that the difference between compensatory and punitive damages awarded by the jury was not a significant difference, and therefore, this factor ...

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