Poisoning and punitives

Lompe v. Sunridge Partners, LLC, No. 14-8082 (10th Cir. Apr. 1, 2016).

The plaintiff, Amber Lompe, was poisoned by carbon monoxide emanating from her apartment building’s malfunctioning furnace. She survived, but now suffers from a number of neurological problems. She sued her apartment building’s owner and its property manager, asserting tort claims under Wyoming law. 

At trial, evidence suggested that carbon monoxide problems had repeatedly shown up earlier, and that the building’s furnace-maintenance program was subpar. Also, only about half of the apartments had working carbon-monoxide detectors. As for Lompe herself, she had thrown away her detector after she had replaced the batteries and it still didn’t work.  

The jury awarded $2.7 million to Lompe in compensatory damages and $25.5 million in punitives. The jury assessed most of its award against the building manager rather than the building owner. 

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit holds that the evidence at trial was insufficient to show that the building owner was “willful and wanton,” the standard for awarding punitive damages under Wyoming law. It upholds the award of punitive damages against the building manager, but holds that the amount of punitive damages was unconstitutionally excessive. It reduces that amount to $1.95 million, equal to the compensatory damages the jury assessed against the building manager. 

Judge Bacharach dissents. He would hold that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to award punitive damages against the building owner, and would reduce the punitives only to $7.8 million, four times the amount of compensatory damages.