Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

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Massachusetts High Court upholds $35 million compensatory damages award, overturns $81 million punitives award, sends deceptive trade practices claims back to lower court

June 11, 2012

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld $35 million in compensatory damages for a wrongful death claim against the defendant, but overturned an $81 million punitive damages and called for a new trial on punitives associated with the wrongful death claim. With respect to the claim that the company violated the state's unfair and deceptive trade practices law, the Court agreed with the position advocated by the U.S. Chamber that the lower court improperly applied the doctrine of “offensive collateral estoppel,” which the plaintiffs had invoked to prevent the company from defending itself against the claim.

U.S. Chamber files amicus brief

June 08, 2012

The U.S. Chamber urged the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to clarify the proper application of the offensive collateral estoppel doctrine. In this case, the trial court applied the controversial doctrine of “offensive collateral estoppel” - where plaintiffs seek to prevent defendants from presenting a defense on an issue the defendant allegedly previously litigated unsuccessfully in a separate lawsuit - to adopt certain findings from separate lawsuits in order to uphold jury verdicts against the defendant. The Chamber explained in its amicus brief that if affirmed, the trial court's approach to collateral estoppel would encourage plaintiffs in complex products liability or other large litigation to file cases seriatim, litigating each until they obtain a favorable verdict. Once that verdict is obtained, they could then, under the trial court's approach, use the favorable verdict to prevent defendants from vindicating their rights in all later cases - even if plaintiffs had lost all the cases leading up to a single win. This approach is inconsistent with how most courts have applied the collateral estoppel doctrine, and at odds with fundamental principles of fairness within the American legal system.

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