On Monday, a California jury awarded a former Autozone employee $185 million in punitive damages. She had sued the company for pregnancy discrimination, claiming that the district manager who fired her was promised a promotion if he fired all of the women in his stores. Last week, the same jury awarded the plaintiff $900,000 in compensatory damages for lost wages and emotional distress.
While $185 million is a staggeringly huge number, this plaintiff will only ever collect a tiny fraction of it, at best. Due process tells us that punitive damages must bear some reasonable relationship to the size of the compensatory award, typically not to exceed a ratio of 9:1.
Moreover, if this case was filed in Ohio, and not California, damage caps would kick in to severely restrict the verdict. Ohio’s tort reform law caps punitive damages in state-law employment discrimination claims to two-times the compensatory award. Thus, in Ohio, this plaintiff’s punitive award would cap at $1.8 million, still a large number, but out of the nine-figure stratosphere.
Jury verdicts are headline grabbers—big splashy numbers that grab everyone’s attention. Trust me, Autozone’s attention has been grabbed. It will file a motion to reduce the jury verdict, and it will appeal, while, at the same time, this plaintiff will file motions seeking her attorneys’ fees. Ultimately, this case will confidentially settle, and we will never know the final dollars exchanged.
More damaging than the amount of the award is the negative publicity associated with it. Because of the verdict’s inordinate size, the press has labeled Autozone as a company that discriminates against women in the worst way possible—systemically and intentionally. That damage is much worse than this employee punching a lotto ticket that she will never cash.