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In an appeal from the largest retaliatory discharge jury award in Ohio history (over $46 million), the Eighth District Court of Appeals of Ohio was asked to consider whether certain provisions of Ohio’s tort reform statutes should apply to limit the recovery. Luri v. Republic Services (Ohio App. 8 Dist. 2011), 193 Ohio App.3d 682.
In Luri, the plaintiff filed suit alleging that the termination of his employment was in retaliation for refusing to fire three of the defendant-employer’s oldest employees. After receiving notice of the plaintiff’s suit, evidence indicated that the defendant-employer altered at least one piece of evidence to justify the termination. After a lengthy trial, the jury found against the defendants and awarded the plaintiff $3.5 million in compensatory damages and over $43 million in punitive damages. The trial court then awarded the plaintiff’s attorney over $1 million in fees.
On appeal, the defendants first argued that the trial court should have instructed the jury about distinguishing noneconomic damages when determining an award for compensatory damages and applying the caps found in Ohio’s tort reform legislation. Unfortunately for the defendants, their trial counsel neglected to request these jury instructions and had, in fact, agreed to jury instructions that did not include this information. Because of this, the court of appeals rejected the defendants’ argument even though it agreed that the cap for non-economic damages was applicable. Without this jury instruction, it was impossible to determine what the jury had awarded for non-economic damages.
The defendants next argued that Ohio’s punitive damage cap provisions should be imposed on the jury’s award. The relevant statute provides that an award for punitive damages cannot exceed two times the amount of the compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff. The Court examined the statute and concluded that it does apply to retaliatory discharge actions brought under Ohio law. As such, the plaintiff’s punitive damages award was limited from over $43 million to $7 million.
This case makes it clear that the punitive damages cap and non-economic damages cap in Ohio’s tort reform statute does apply to retaliatory discharge actions. It also illustrates the importance of considering the implications of this statute at multiple stages during the litigation process, from an initial assessment of the settlement value of the case all the way to preparing jury instructions before trial.