Oregon Supreme Court Overturns $10 Million Punitive Damages Award in Landlord Negligence Case

PORTLAND, Ore. – In a groundbreaking premises liability case, a tenant at an apartment complex in Portland, Oregon alleged that he suffered a serious knee injury when a concrete walkway collapsed beneath him. The tenant, seeking damages for the physical and emotional harm he endured, sued the landlord for negligence. The case, known as Trebelhorn v. Prime Wimbledon SPE, LLC, reached the Oregon Supreme Court, resulting in a significant ruling that could impact similar cases in the future.

The tenant, who underwent surgery for a meniscal tear caused by the incident, demanded $45,000 for economic damages and $350,000 for noneconomic damages. Although the landlord admitted negligence, the amount of damages was disputed. The tenant’s legal strategy involved showcasing the landlord as a negligent property owner who failed to fix known issues at the apartment complex. At trial, the plaintiff also sought punitive damages, which the trial court allowed to be considered by the jury.

To the surprise of many, the jury awarded the tenant the full $45,000 for economic damages, along with an additional $250,000 for noneconomic damages. The most striking aspect, however, was the $10,000,000 punitive damages awarded by the jury. After the trial, the court carefully reviewed the case and determined that a ratio of nine times the actual damages was the maximum constitutionally permitted for punitive damages. Consequently, the $10,000,000 punitive damages award was reduced to $2,660,373.54. Dissatisfied with the decision, both parties appealed.

The Oregon Supreme Court, after extensive analysis, upheld the trial court’s ruling. The court closely examined the factual record and applied its own case law to determine whether such a punitive damages award violated constitutional standards. Ultimately, the court concluded that the tenant had not met the burden to justify the original $10,000,000 award and its 33:1 ratio. The court pointed out that the ratio exceeded the single-digit limit that the United States Supreme Court, except in extraordinary circumstances, has suggested as the maximum ratio permissible under due process.

Moreover, the Oregon Supreme Court emphasized that calculating the appropriate ratio is not a straightforward mathematical exercise. Different cases may warrant different ratios. While the court did not dismiss the possibility of a ratio greater or lower than 9:1, it determined that the present ratio was within constitutional limits.

This landmark decision not only has direct implications for the parties involved in this particular case, but it also sets a precedent for future premises liability cases in Oregon. It clarifies the limits of punitive damages and provides a framework for determining the constitutionally permissible ratio in such cases. By carefully assessing the facts, the court has established a precedent that will guide future litigation and protect the rights of both tenants and landlords.