Connecticut Common-Law Rule Limiting Punitives Does Not Apply to Statutory Damages
Drawing a distinction between punitive damages based on statutory and common law claims, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that a common-law rule limiting punitive damages does not apply to an award of statutory damages under Connecticut’s Product Liability Act. See Biflock v. Philip Morris, Inc., 324 Conn. 402 (2016).
Connecticut’s Product Liability Act provides that the amount of punitive damages is “not to exceed an amount equal to twice the damages awarded to the plaintiff.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-240b. The state’s common law limits punitive damages to litigation expenses less costs. Relying on traditional principles of statutory construction, the court determined that the legislature clearly intended to create a separate punitive damages scheme where the common-law limit does not apply, and noted that the statute includes a separate provision authorizing an award of attorney’s fees.
The court also addressed two other related issues. First, the court opted to retain the strict liability standard it has adapted from the Restatement (Second) of Torts, instead of adopting the Restatement (Third) of Torts standard, which would have required additional showings that the harm was foreseeable and that there was a reasonable alternative design. The court opted to retain its existing tests – the “consumer expectation test” and the “risk-utility test” – which have fewer required elements to prove product liability than the Restatement (Third) approach.
Second, the court determined that comment (i) to Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts does not provide the unitary definition of “unreasonably dangerous” for purposes of raising a product liability claim under theories of strict liability and/or negligence. Comment (i) to Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts captures the aforementioned “consumer expectation test,” but the court emphasized that the availability of the alternative “risk-utility test” necessitates a finding that “unreasonably dangerous” does not have a single definition. In other words, in Connecticut, a product can be unreasonably dangerous if it fails the consumer expectation test or if its risks outweigh its utility.