November 03, 2009

Supreme Court examines issues regarding punitive damage award


The owners of real property filed suit against a construction company hired by the State of Tennessee to widen a highway adjacent to their property. The property owners had a contract with the construction company that allowed it to place equipment and construction materials on their land in exchange for compensation. Following the completion of the road project, the property owners filed suit claiming that the construction company failed to pay the amount due under the contract and caused blasting damage to their house and vehicles. They also claimed that the construction company illegally buried debris on their property.

At trial, the parties stipulated that the construction company was liable for breach of contract in the amount of $5,355.50. A jury then determined that the construction company was strictly liable for harm caused by its blasting activities in the amount of $9,510, and that burying debris on the plaintiffs' property constituted a nuisance for which the company was liable for $3,305. The jury also returned an award of $2 million in punitive damages which the trial court modified to $1 million to conform to the amount requested in the pleadings. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment as to liability, but reversed the award of punitive damages based on a finding that the trial court improperly considered Tennessee's environmental laws in approving the award.

After careful review, we conclude that the evidence supports the jury's award of punitive damages and that the trial court properly considered Tennessee's environmental statutes in approving that award. We further conclude that the amount of the punitive damages award does violate the construction company's due process rights and must be modified to $500,000. Finally, we find no error in the trial court's instructions to the jury regarding punitive damages or its denial of a motion for mistrial based on a mention of insurance during the trial. Accordingly, the decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the judgment of the trial court is reinstated as modified.

The full text of this opinion may be found on the TBA website at: