On September 13, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a $20,640,000 verdict obtained in Essex Superior Court by SUGARMAN partners W. Thomas Smith and Benjamin Zimmermann. The case, Aleo v. SLB Toys USA, Inc., et. al., arose from the death of Robin Aleo, who was rendered quadriplegic and subsequently died when she slid head first down an inflatable Bonzai Falls In-Ground Pool Slide. That slide and approximately 4,000 others were imported to and sold in the United States by the defendant, Toys R Us. Among other things, the evidence at trial was that the slide was defective, that the slide failed to comply with the applicable federal regulations relating to pool slides and that Toys R Us failed to take steps to determine whether or not the slide complied with those regulations. Based in part on this evidence, the jury awarded Ms. Aleo’s husband and her young daughter $2,640,000 in compensatory damages and, finding that Toys R Us was grossly negligent under Massachusetts law, awarded punitive damages in the amount of $18,000,000. Toys R Us, who subsequently recalled all the Bonzai Falls In-Ground Pool Slides that it had sold, appealed the jury’s verdict on several grounds.
In unanimously upholding the verdict, the Supreme Judicial Court dismissed Toys R Us’ evidentiary arguments, ruling that the trial judge had not abused his discretion in prohibiting the introduction of certain evidence, such as unverified and unattributed statements in a police report and inaccurate tests conducted by Toys R Us’ expert that failed to properly replicate the subject accident. The Supreme Judicial Court also ruled that SUGARMAN’s personal injury attorneys presented sufficient evidence to permit the jury to find that not only was Toys R Us negligent, but that the company was grossly negligent. In its analysis, the Court cited to the failure of Toys R Us to ensure that the slide complied with the federal regulations, the fact that Toys R Us only had one employee to review 4,000 safety compliance certificates per month and an indemnity agreement that gave Toys R Us an incentive to be indifferent to the safety of the product because it believed it would not be financially liable for any defects that caused injury to a person using the slide.
In the most lengthy portion of the opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the $18,000,000 punitive damage award was not excessive and did not violate Toys R Us’ due process under the Constitution. As part of its analysis, the Court found that Toys R Us’ conduct exhibited a substantial degree of reprehensibility that warranted the imposition of punitive damages and held that the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages was constitutional under the applicable United States Supreme Court cases.
The results of this case, both the verdict and the subsequent recall of the defective product that hopefully will prevent any more injuries or deaths, once again demonstrate the ability of SUGARMAN’s personal injury attorneys to investigate and litigate complex product liability cases involving a wide range of consumer products. If you or a family member have any questions regarding a defective product, our partners are happy to consult with you. Please call us at 617-542-1000 or email email@example.com.