I had intended to write this post a few weeks ago, and because the issues have been back in the news recently, I have another chance to discuss them.
Last year, a Harrison County, West Virginia jury returned a verdict for $196.2 million in punitive damages against DuPont in a class action with more than 7,000 members who sought damages for medical monitoring and property damage claims, as a result of DuPont’s operation of a zinc smelter that released harmful quantities of cadmium, arsenic, and lead. The jury earlier had awarded $55.5 million for the plaintiffs’ property damage claims and found that that a medical monitoring program was appropriate, which will cost approximately $130 million. Here is my post dealing with the trial court’s rulings on the parties’ post-trial motions.
Since then, the parties have prosecuted appeals from the court’s rulings. I’ll discuss those appeals, but the filings that have been getting attention are two amicus briefs filed in the case.
In June, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin filed an amicus brief in support of DuPont’s petition for appeal from the jury’s verdict: “Because the disposition of cases involving punitive damages at the petition stage raises significant due process concerns, the Governor respectfully requests that this Court grant the petition to clarify the law regarding the constitutionally mandated appellate review of punitive damages.” Here is the Governor’s brief, courtesy of his counsel, Carte Goodwin.
You will note that Manchin is careful not to advocate a particular result, even as he asks the Court to accept DuPont’s appeal. His purpose in doing so, he maintains, is that because the United States Supreme Court held in State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003), that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause guarantees the right to de novo appellate review of a punitive damages award, DuPont’s right to such review may be compromised, if not violated, by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia’s “mere” consideration of DuPont’s petition for appeal.
Consequently, the Governor is interested in one of the central issues highlighted by this case and other petitions seeking review of punitive damages awards: What sort of appellate review is required by the Due Process Clause?
It is the “this case and other petitions seeking review of punitive damages awards” that provides the context for Manchin’s brief. In May, the Supreme Court of Appeals refused petitions for appeal in two widely-publicized cases where juries had returned substantial verdicts: the natural gas royalty class action against Columbia Natural Resources, LLC and other defendants, where a jury returned a verdict for about $404 million, including $270 million in punitive damages, and a breach of contract case against Massey Energy Company, where a jury returned a verdict of $219 million, including $100 million in punitive damages. Here is my post about the Court’s action.
Manchin does not want DuPont’s petition for appeal to become the third one rejected by the Court without what he and DuPont regard as adequate appellate review, which they hope would result in a reversal of the jury’s verdict. The problem from their perspective, however, is Rule 7 of the West Virginia Rules of Appellate Procedure, which provides that the Court may refuse or grant a petition for appeal, and that a refusal precludes any further appellate review in West Virginia.
Just as Governor Manchin tries not to advocate a particular outcome – even though the relief he requests benefits DuPont more than the plaintiffs — he is careful not to criticize the Supreme Court of Appeals too pointedly for its procedure for considering appeals. But he does makes this observation:
More to the point, it is unclear whether this Court’s periodic practice of determining the validity of a punitive damages award solely through consideration of a petition for appeal could withstand constitutional scrutiny today. Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court has not explicitly addressed whether this aspect of our process provides litigants with “meaningful and adequate” appellate review.
(Emphasis in original.)
The Governor expands on the point in footnote 4:
This is understandable – and the concern especially pronounced – given the unique structure of West Virginia courts, where no civil litigant is provided an appeal as a matter of right and – lacking any intermediate appellate courts – this Court is the only appellate tribunal that can provide the level of review mandated by State Farm. And yet, this Court may grant or refuse a petition for appeal in its sole discretion. See Rule 7, West Virginia Rules of Appellate Procedure. By contrast, forty-eight States offer civil litigants at least one appeal as a matter of right, either to an intermediate appellate court or to the State’s highest court….
Not surprisingly, the plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to ignore Manchin’s brief, according to this article by Ken Ward, Jr. in last Thursday’s Charleston Gazette. Ward’s article referred in turn to this article by Ian Urbina in last Wednesday’s New York Times, which detailed contacts between Manchin and officials from DuPont and said that Manchin asked DuPont to provide a draft brief to his office, which would render his assertion that he is not advocating for a particular party less than credible. Urbina quoted well-known legal ethicist and New York University law professor Stephen Gillers as saying that Manchin’s action was the first he could find where a state’s governor, as opposed to its attorney general, took such action.
Last week, the plaintiffs filed a brief, also referred to in Ward’s article, in which they asked the Court not to consider Manchin’s brief. I don’t have the plaintiffs’ brief yet, but as soon as I get it, I’ll upload it.
A second amicus brief that has created some controversy, although not as much as Governor Manchin’s, was filed by the West Virginia State Medical Association in support of DuPont’s petition for appeal. Here is the WVSMA amicus brief.
The WVSMA’s position is that the medical monitoring plan proposed by the plaintiffs and accepted by the trial court will cause more incidents of cancer than it will detect:
Although WVSMA is also concerned about the arbitrary nature of the large punitive damages award and other issues in this case, this brief is limited to the public health issues raised by the medical monitoring plan ordered by the Circuit Court. WVSMA is concerned that this plan places the plaintiff class in unnecessary danger by approving biennial computed tomography (“CT”) scans that will likely cause more cancer than they will ever find. Review is warranted because the trial court failed to appropriately weigh the health risks involved in the medical monitoring program when it considered whether the proposed testing was ‘reasonably necessary.”
Specifically, the WVSMA argues that as many as 70 class members could develop cancer if they fully participate in the screening program for 40 years, while 10 cases of cancer would have been detected by the program.
The WVSMA asks that the Court accept DuPont’s petition in order to determine whether all of the tests in the proposed medical monitoring program are “reasonably necessary,” meaning whether a qualified physician would prescribe them.
Regarding the underlying issues, the plaintiffs are appealing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in the defendants’ favor, which found that releases and easements executed in the 1920s in favor of an earlier owner of the smelter immunized it against certain plaintiffs’ claims. Here are the plaintiffs’ petition for appeal, which is scheduled to be considered by the Supreme Court on September 9, and DuPont’s response in opposition.
DuPont is prosecuting two appeals. One addresses the size and nature of the jury’s verdicts and rulings made by the trial court before, during, and after the trial. Here is DuPont’s petition for appeal.
In the other appeal, DuPont appeals the trial court’s order that required it to indemnify T. L. Diamond and Company for more than $800,000 for costs and expenses that Diamond incurred in connection with the plaintiffs’ medical monitoring and property damage claims, based on a contract between DuPont and Diamond. Here are DuPont’s petition on that issue, and the plaintiffs’ response in opposition. Neither of DuPont’s appeals has been scheduled on a motion docket yet.