Kentucky Supreme Court Vacates Punitive Damages Award for Product that Complied with Federal Safety Standards

Kentucky Supreme Court

The Kentucky Supreme Court vacated an award for punitive damages in Nissan Motors v. Maddox where the product at issue, a seatbelt, fully complied with and exceeded federal and industry safety standards. Public Policy Group partners Victor Schwartz and Phil Goldberg filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the Association of Global Automakers, American Tort Reform Association, and NFIB Small Business Legal Center.

The court did not adopt a compliance defense to punitive damages per se, but it suggested that when a product complies with applicable safety standards there must be substantial additional evidence that the defendant engaged in reckless and wanton conduct. Here, the plaintiff provided no such proof. She claimed that the seat belt was designed to earn the highest safety test ratings by maximizing effectiveness for the 170-pound test dummy used in those tests, but those design features made the seat belt assembly more dangerous for heavier people like herself. Her attorney called the strategy of maximizing safety ratings “stars over safety” and alleged it demonstrated callous disregard to heavier individuals.

A jury had awarded the plaintiff $2.5 million in punitive damages. The amicus brief explained that allowing this award to stand would negatively impact all regulated businesses because they would have no notice of, and could not avoid the expense and tarnish of, punitive damages despite their best efforts to meet and exceed safety standards.