As previously reported, the Louisiana Supreme Court heard oral argument in Oleszkowicz v. Exxon Mobil Oil Corporation, et al. and Chauvin v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, et al., regarding the dispute as to whether claims for punitive damages are barred by res judicata. The court recently issued opinions in these cases.
To recap, a jury awarded the plaintiff in the initial Oleszkowicz case compensatory damages for the increased risk of cancer but specifically denied punitive damages. The denial was based on the jury’s express finding that that the defendant had not engaged in wanton or reckless conduct. Soon after that suit, plaintiff actually developed cancer and filed suit again, claiming that his cancer was caused by the same exposure and conduct as the first suit. He sought compensatory damages and renewed his claim for punitive damages. Contrary to the verdict in the first suit, the jury awarded plaintiff $10 million in punitive damages. The defendant appealed, and the court of appeal reduced the punitive damages award but rejected defendant’s argument of res judicata. Instead, the court of appeal found that an exception to res judicata applied, as “the complexity of and convoluted circumstances” of the case constituted “exceptional circumstances.” However, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded that res judicata bars any re-litigation of the punitive damages claim and that no “exceptional circumstances” exist to justify an exception to res judicata. The court found it undeniable that the plaintiff’s right to bring a future cancer claim in his initial case did not change the fact that he fully prosecuted his punitive damages claim, and the jury, in deciding whether to award such damages, found that the defendant had not engaged in wanton or reckless conduct. While the court noted that the facts are unusual, the case does not involve a complex procedural situation or an unanticipated quirk in the system to which an exception to the general rules of res judicata applies. Because it found that the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim must be dismissed, the court reversed the judgment of the court of appeal.
In Chauvin, the defendant settled the plaintiff’s fear/increased risk claim and received a release from all future claims, except for future cancers. Plaintiff later developed cancer and filed another lawsuit, including a claim for punitive damages. The defendant sought dismissal of all claims barred by plaintiff’s prior settlement. The trial court agreed and granted defendant’s exception of res judicata as to all claims, including punitive damages, other than damages for future cancer. Plaintiff appealed, and the court of appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment as it pertained to punitive damages, finding an exception to res judicata. The Louisiana Supreme Court held that punitive damages relate to conduct and are separate and distinct from compensatory damages related to a specific injury. Because the plaintiff released all punitive damages arising out of the defendant’s alleged misconduct resulting in his exposure to NORM, res judicata bars his subsequent claim for punitive damages and no exception to res judicata applies. The court reversed the decision of the court of appeal and reinstated the trial court’s judgment. The plaintiff sought rehearing from the Louisiana Supreme Court. The court denied rehearing on February 6, 2015.
In sum, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that a jury’s prior finding of no punitive damages, or a prior release of punitive damages, prevents the same plaintiff from later pursuing punitive damages against the same defendant in a subsequent case for the same exposure.