Professor Warnken Interviewed Regarding Jury’s Award of Punitive Damages in Exxon Case
On June 29, 2011, the Circuit Court for Baltimore County awarded a half a million dollars in compensatory damages to families who home were subjected to underground oil leaks cased by Exxon. At the same time, the jury announced that it would award punitive damages. A subsequent hearing resulted in a million dollars in punitive damages. Compensatory damages are designed to make the victim whole. Punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoing far greater than the wrongdoer’s actual harm as a way to send a warning to other potential wrongdoers.
Professor Warnken noted that punitive damages in Maryland require actual malice, which is a tough standard to meet. This requires the plaintiffs to demonstrate, in essence, that the defendants intentionally caused the harm. In this case, it appears that the initial harm of the oil leak was unintentional. However, the cover up of the incident and/or the failure to properly and promptly remediate the situation may have been intentional. The plaintiffs have now persuaded the six-person jury that there was actual malice. The defendants will file ten-day post-trial motions, requiring the plaintiffs to persuade the trial judge that there was actual malice. Even if the plaintiffs succeed at that level, this case will go to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, which will affirm the punitive damages verdict only if that court finds that there was actual malice. Professor Warnken believes that the half-million dollar compensatory damages judgment will be affirmed, but some or all of the million dollar punitive damages judgment will be reversed.