The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a substantial award of punitive damages in a wrongful death action against a toy retailer. Aleo v. SLB Toys USA, 2013 WL 4849097 (Mass., Sept. 13, 2013). The court’s reasoning on the amount of the jury’s award largely tracked arguments advanced by CCL Senior Counsel Jeffrey White in an amicus curiae brief filed on behalf of the American Association for Justice and the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys.

The product was a Banzai Falls inflatable pool slide imported from China and sold by defendant Toys R Us. Robin Aleo, a 29-year-old wife and mother, slid down head-first. At the bottom, the underinflated slide allowed her head to strike to concrete pool edge, severing her spinal cord and resulting in her death a day later. A jury found Toys R Us liable for gross negligence in marketing the slide, which failed to meet federal safety standards, awarding $2.6 million in compensatory and $18 million in punitive damages.

On direct appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court, Toys R Us contended that due process limited punitive damages to no more than the compensatory award, particularly because gross negligence is the least blameworthy conduct triggering punitive liability.

The court noted that the role of the reviewing court is not to substitute its judgment for the moral condemnation expressed by the jury in awarding punitive damages within constitutional limits. The court also emphasized that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected a “bright line” ratio between punitive and compensatory damages. Additionally, although the compensatory award might be viewed as “substantial” in some contexts, “its significance pales when viewed not as compensation for economic loss or emotional distress but for the loss of a young woman's life.” The court concluded, based on the reprehensibility of the misconduct and the possible civil penalties, that the single-digit ratio award was not grossly excessive so as to exceed constitutional bounds.