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Atlanta Judge Reduces Punitive Damage Award in Defective Hip Replacement Case

Every year thousands of Americans are injured or even killed due to defective medical products. While most manufacturers are responsible and take care to properly test a medical device or drug before introducing it into the marketplace, there are still cases where a defective product makes it to the patient. When that defect causes harm, it can take many years of litigation before the patient receives compensation.

Christiansen v. Wright Medical Technology Incorporated

Recently a federal judge in Atlanta rejected a medical device manufacturer’s bid to throw out a jury verdict arising from a product liability claim. Although the judge refused to disturb most of the jury’s findings on liability and damages, he did cut its punitive damages award by nearly 90%.

The subject of this case was a metal artificial hip designed and manufactured by the defendant. The plaintiff underwent surgery to receive this artificial hip in 2006. About six years later, the plaintiff said she “felt and heard a crunching sound” and experienced severe pain around the artificial hip. It turned out that a part in the artificial hip was displaced, requiring the plaintiff to undergo “revision surgery.” Even after this surgery, the plaintiff continued to experience pain and discomfort.

The plaintiff accused the defendant of defective design, failure to provide appropriate warning to consumers, and negligence, among other things. The case was tried before a jury last November. The jury ultimately found the defendant’s hip replacement system “was defectively designed, was unreasonably dangerous, was defective when it was sold to Plaintiff, [and] caused Plaintiff’s injuries.” The jury awarded the plaintiff $550,000 in compensatory damages on these grounds, plus an additional $450,000 for the defendant’s “negligent misrepresentations regarding the device.”

The jury also ordered the defendant to pay $10 million in punitive damages on the negligent misrepresentations claim. Following the trial, U.S. District Judge William S. Duffey, Jr., ordered that amount reduced to just $1.1 million. As Judge Duffey explained, although this case was tried in Georgia it was subject to the product liability laws of Utah. And under Utah law, punitive damages are permissible only when the jury finds there is clear and convincing evidence of “willful and malicious or intentionally fraudulent conduct, or conduct that manifests a knowing and reckless indifference toward, and a disregard of, the rights of others.”

The judge did not did not question the propriety of awarding punitive damages under this standard. But he noted that Utah courts have generally held the ratio between punitive damages and compensatory damages should not exceed three-to-one absent proof of certain extraordinary factors, such as the “relative wealth of the defendant” and the “facts and circumstances surrounding such conduct.” Here, Judge Duffey found none of these factors justified an award of $10 million in punitive damages against $450,000 in compensatory damages—a 22-to-1 ratio. Accordingly, the judge reduced the punitive damage award to a single-digit ratio. In all other aspects, Judge Duffey declined to second-guess the jury’s verdict.