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Waltson v. Home Depot U.S.A.

August 3, 2010

RUTH WALTSON, ET AL. PLAINTIFFS,
v.
HOME DEPOT U.S.A., INC. T/A, D/B/A THE HOME DEPOT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.

MEMORANDUM

After a trial in the above-captioned case, the jury awarded the three plaintiffs, collectively, $12,801.25 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages. In the instant motion, Defendant asks for judgment as a matter of law with respect to punitive damages, or alternatively, remittitur of the punitive damages award. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Defendant's motion in its entirety.

I. BACKGROUND

On August 12, 2007, Ruth Waltson began a cleaning project at her home in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. She had hired two men to help clean mold and mildew off the walls of her basement. She prepared a cleaning solution for the workers to use by mixing a bottle of TSP cleaning product with bleach. Instructions on the bottle of TSP noted that it could be mixed with bleach for use as a cleaner. The workers used the mixture to clean the basement and then took a lunch break.

Noticing that the cleaning mixture was nearly exhausted, Ruth asked her son Daniel Waltson to go to Home Depot and buy more TSP cleaning product. Daniel took the empty TSP bottle with him to a Home Depot store in Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. He showed the bottle to Lawrence Moulder, a Home Depot employee working in the store's paint department, and told Moulder that he wanted to purchase another bottle. Moulder retrieved a bottle from the bay in which the TSP cleaner was normally stored. It was the last bottle in the bay. It contained no label or warning of any kind. The only thing written on the bottle was a product identification number. Daniel Waltson testified at trial that he asked Moulder whether the unlabeled bottle contained the same product that he had come to Home Depot to purchase, and that Moulder said yes. Daniel purchased the unlabeled bottle and brought it home to his mother, telling her that it was the same product she had asked him to procure from Home Depot.

Ruth Waltson then mixed the newly purchased product with bleach. Shortly after she created the mixture, the concoction began emitting a noxious plume of vapors. Ruth, Daniel, and Kenneth Waltson (another of Ruth's sons who was in the house that day) all testified at trial that they came in contact with the vapors and that it caused them to experience respiratory problems.

The Waltsons contacted local authorities. A hazardous materials team arrived at the Waltson home. Testing later uncovered that the product sold to Daniel Waltson was not TSP, but was phosphoric acid, a chemical that is extremely hazardous to humans and potentially lethal when mixed with bleach.

On or about June 8, 2009, Plaintiffs initiated a lawsuit against Defendant in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Their Complaint, filed on or about July 22, 2009, asserted theories of negligence and strict liability based on Defendant's sale of the phosphoric acid to Daniel Waltson. The Complaint requested both compensatory and punitive damages. On July 28, 2009, the case was removed to this Court, which has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

On August 4, 2009, Defendant moved to strike Plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages, which the Court denied without prejudice to raise again after discovery. The parties conducted discovery and a jury trial was scheduled for June 28, 2010. On June 14, 2010, Defendant filed a motion in limine to preclude an instruction to the jury at trial regarding punitive damages. The Court denied Defendant's motion in limine and at trial instructed the jury on the standard for imposing punitive damages. Specifically, the Court informed the jury that a finding of negligence alone is insufficient to support an award of punitive damages but that punitive damages may be awarded if Defendant's conduct amounted to reckless indifference. The jury found Defendant liable to each of the Plaintiffs under a negligence theory and liable to Ruth and Daniel Waltson under a theory of strict liability.*fn1

The jury awarded compensatory damages to Ruth in the amount of $6,029.75, to Daniel in the amount of $4,924.50, and to Kenneth in the amount of $1,847.00, for a total compensatory award of $12,801.25. In addition, the jury awarded the Plaintiffs collectively $75,000 in punitive damages.

On July 12, 2010, Defendant filed the instant motion, asking the court either to (1) find as a matter of law that there was insufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to assess punitive damages against it (see Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50), or (2) reduce the amount of the punitive damages award pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 is appropriate only where, "viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find liability." Gagliardo v. Connaught Labs., Inc., 311 F.3d 565, 568 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing Warren v. Reading Sch. Dist., 278 F.3d 163, 168 (3d Cir. 2002)).

With respect to a motion requesting remittitur under FED. R. CIV. P. 59, "[i]f a jury's punitive damages award is free of irrationality, passion, and prejudice, and falls within the 'broad discretion in authorizing and limiting permissible punitive damages awards' lodged with state legislatures, a trial judge should not substitute his or her view of the appropriate amount of punitive damages for the jury's determination." Willow Inn, Inc. v. Pub. Serv. Mut. Ins. Co., 399 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Cooper Indus., Inc. v. ...


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