Remittitur: Or How Civil Procedure Can Save Your Ass
The recent case of Arturo Uribe reminds me of something my law school civil procedure professor, Ted Occhialino, used to say: “Good procedural moves turn bad cases into good cases and good cases into bad ones.”
After a presumably fair trial, the jury has spoken against Mr. Uribe and in favor of Helena Chemical Company. My understanding of the facts are as follows: Mr. Uribe, a resident of the village of Mesquite in southern Dona Ana County, was sued by Helena Chemical Company, a Japanese owned multi-national company that is among the “foremost distributors of crop protection and crop production inputs and services for agricultural, turf & ornamental, forestry, aquatics and vegetation management markets” in the United States. Helena has also recently “diversified into service areas such as lending, variable rate technologies, and tissue analysis to fine-tune product application techniques and increase productivity.” Those quotes come directly from Helena’s website.
It seems that Mr. Uribe lived across the street from a warehouse owned by Helena and went around saying some rather unkind and, according to the verdict of the jury, untrue and damaging things about Helena. Having not seen the evidence, I am in no position to judge the merits of the case.
Damages were set by the jury at $1 actual damages. Actual damages are just that–actual, proven damages from the evidence. If Uribe had unlawfully punched a Helena executive in the eye, he would be liable for the medical bills. The $1 damage award by the jury reflects what the jury thought of the economic harm that Uribe’s conduct caused Helena. It is obviously nominal and extremely minimal.
The real kicker against Uribe is not the actual damages award, but rather then punitive damage award in the amount of $75,000. As it stands now, Uribe is on the hook for $75,001. Shitty, huh?
But it’s not as bad as it seems. This is a perfect time for a Motion for Remittitur on the part of Uribe. Remittitur is the action by which a damages award can be reduced by the Trial Court. The party moving for Remittitur has ten days from the date of entry of judgment to file the motion. There is a progeny of cases regarding punitive damages at both the state and federal level. It boils down to this principle: punitive damages must be rational and in some sort of proportion to the actual damages. While no court has ever really given a bright line equation, Remittitur starts coming into play if punitive damages are in excess of three times the actual damages amount. In Uribe’s case, the equation is that the punitive damages award against him is 75,000 times the amount of the actual damages!
This is a classic case for Remittitur. The trial judge will have to make a ruling based on the law and the facts, but it is not inconceivable that Uribe will ultimately end up paying less than $100 in punitive damages. Either side can appeal the Judge’s ruling. If Uribe does not file for Remittitur within 10 days of the entry of judgment, he fails to preserve the issue and there is no appeal and his lawyer better hope his malpractice coverage is up to date. Alternatively, Uribe and Helena can settle on a different amount. Remittitur is requested for under Rule 59(E) of the Rules of Civil Procedure. Just as the law can take away under Remittitur, it can also add to it under Additur.
This case is certainly prime specimen of how good procedure can turn a loser into a winner. Not only that, Remittitur has traditionally been used by corporate defendants to get around jury verdicts for excessively harmful and sometimes atrocious conduct. It’s nice to see the little guy being able to take advantage of the law. The case is Helena Chemical Co. v. Arturo Uribe, cause number CV-2008-3038 in the Third Judicial District Court of New Mexico, the Honorable Jerald Valentine presiding.
C. J. McElhinney is a Las Attorney who had a great Civil Procedure professor in Law School.