You Need More Than A Scintilla: North Carolina Supreme Court Sets Aside Jury's Award Of Punitive Damages

Lawyers defending against punitive damages claims ought to put on their dancing shoes after the North Carolina Supreme Court's decision Friday in Scarborough v. Dillard's, Inc.

That's because the majority opinion by Chief Justice Parker makes it easier for trial and appellate judges to set aside a jury's award on punitive damages. With Scarborough on the books, a "scintilla of evidence" is no longer enough to support a judgment granting punitive damages.

Facts

The Plaintiff in Scarborough was a shoe salesman for Dillard's. Dillard's had him indicted for embezzlement for letting two customers leave the store without paying for shoes. He said was a mistake and that his employer's actions were malicious.

A jury found the Plaintiff not guilty, and he then sued Dillard's for malicious prosecution. He won a jury award of $30,000 in compensatory damages and $77,000 in punitive damages.

Dillard's moved for JNOV on the punitive damages award. The trial court granted the motion, ruling that the plaintiff hadn't shown the "clear and convincing evidence" required by G.S. §1D-15(b) for an award of punitive damages.

The Court of Appeals reversed in a 2-1 ruling and reinstated the punitive damages award. It ruled that the JNOV motion should have been denied based on the familiar standard that such a motion should be denied so long as there was "more than a scintilla of evidence to support the plaintiff's prima facie case."

The Majority Opinion

The Supreme Court majority ruled that a different standard than a "scintilla of evidence" applies to a JNOV motion when punitive damages are at issue.

The proper standard, said the majority, was the one set out in Section 1D-15(b) itself: the trial judge must be satisfied that the evidence to support the award is "clear and convincing." Chief Justice Parker ruled that the evidence hadn't been clear and convincing, that the trial judge had properly set aside the award of punitive damages, and reversed the Court of Appeals.

The holding was: "the proper standard of review of a trial court's ruling on a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to punitive damages is whether the nonmovant produced clear and convincing evidence of of one of the statutory aggravating factors for punitive damages."

That's a whole lot different than looking for a "scintilla." The Random House Dictionary defines a scintilla as "a minute particle; [a] spark; [a] trace."  Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law says it is "a small trace or barely perceptible amount of something."

The Dissent

Justice Timmons-Goodson disagreed, quite strongly. She said that the standard for setting aside a jury verdict doesn't change because the burden of persuasion is higher than the usual preponderance of the evidence standard, as it is when punitive damages are involved.

She ruled that once the jury is instructed on the clear and convincing standard, the determination of whether that burden had been met is "the exclusive province of the factfinder." And once the jury has made its decision, Justice Timmons-Goodson ruled, it should not be set aside "unless only a single inference, unfavorable to the plaintiff, is possible from the evidence."

Justice Timmons-Goodson said that the majority's statement of the facts, and its perception that they did not rise to the level of being clear and convincing, "illuminate[d] the difficulty of reviewing a cold record." She observed that the majority's interpretation of the evidence might be right, but that there was "an equally plausible view of the evidence" that would support a punitive damages award.

She concluded with this statement:

It was the jury's role to sift through the evidence, evaluate the demeanor and credibility of the witnesses, and determine whether plaintiff met his burden of persuasion by producing clear and convincing evidence in support of his claim for punitive damages. The jury did so and found in favor of plaintiff. The majority's decision usurps the jury's role and imposes its own view of the evidence, contrary to well-established case law.

Last Word

This is a decision that is going to have a broad day to day (or at least trial to trial) application. And if defense lawyers really are dancing in the streets over this one, plaintiffs' counsel have got to be tearing their hair out.  Judges now have way more authority to question the conclusion of a jury on punitive damages and to throw out such an award.

 

 

 

Business Court Grants Summary Judgment In Trade Secrets Case

The Business Court granted summary judgment on Plaintiff's trade secrets claim yesterday in Edgewater Services, Inc. v. Epic Logistics, Inc., 2009 NCBC 20 (N.C. Super. Ct. August 11, 2009). It also dismissed Plaintiff's claim for punitive damages.

Plaintiff Edgewater and Defendant Epic are third party logistics companies, arranging for transportation of freight for their customers. Epic handled less than truckload (LTL) shipping. Edgewater's specialty was truckload (TL) freight.

The two companies had an oral agreement for Epic to refer TL shipments to Edgewater, and for Edgewater to refer LTL shipments to Epic. In 2004, an Edgewater employee named Osgood decided to leave Edgewater and join Epic, and Epic then began to move into the TL side of the business.

Edgewater sued, contending that Epic had misappropriated its trade secrets, which it said consisted of information regarding the carriers it used, the rates charged for TL and LTL shipments, and its customer files. Edgewater's president later conceded at her deposition that only the rate information could be considered a trade secret.

Judge Jolly granted summary judgment to Epic on the trade secrets claim, ruling that:

The rate information was not a trade secret, because rates changed as variables like the cost of fuel and insurance changed.

The rate information didn't constitute trade secrets because there was no evidence that Edgewater expended any significant amount of effort or money in developing the information outside of its cost of doing business.

Edgewater didn't take reasonable steps to maintain the secrecy of the information: its customers and carriers weren't required to keep the information confidential; and the information on rates was kept in an unlocked file room accessible to anyone.

On the punitive damages claim, G.S. §1D-15(a) required Plaintiff to show malice and willful or wanton conduct. Its evidence consisted only of its president's "feeling" that the Defendants "were greedy and trying to get something that they didn't have to pay for." Judge Jolly ruled this was insufficient to meet the statutory requirement that evidence supporting punitive damages be "clear and convincing."

There were two earlier rulings in this case: a May 2007 ruling involved the discoverability of  psychiatric records, and an October 2007 ruling involved the enforceability of a covenant not to compete.