May It Please the Court® A Weblog of Legal News & Observations
Quote of the Day - We know from 13 years of experience that being ready, willing and able to defend our products and people, even in judicial 'hellholes,' is the most effective way to control litigation costs. - Kathleen Vokes

Jury Awards $4.5 Million Punitive Damages Against Company With Negative Net Worth

A Jury Run Amuck Or A Well-reasoned Punishment? Don't Jump To A Conclusion Until You Read Further...

How could a jury be so insensitive?  Certainly this jury is from one of those Judicial Hellholes!  This is exactly why we need tort reform ... runaway juries ... just like that McDonald's spilled coffee cup case

You would expect to hear those comments after reading the first headline.  But there's a clue in the subheadline that may cause you to pause for a moment and think that there just might be more than the first headline communicates.

You'd be right.  And you'd be one of those critical thinkers who realizes that the sound bite does a disservice to "the rest of the story," as Paul Harvey would have said.

So here's the set up of Bankhead v. ArvinMeritor.  Now I could spin these facts for you to put you in the mood for the ultimate outcome, but rather than do that, let's let the Court of Appeal tell you what the facts were as they saw it (omitting footnotes):

ArvinMeritor [...] manufactured brake shoes for installation on commercial trucks during the time frame involved in this case. The brake shoes were fitted with asbestos-containing linings [...].

By the 1960's, ArvinMeritor knew that workers exposed to asbestos dust were at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Indeed, in 1973 and again in 1975, it wrote letters to [...] manufacturers complaining about the presence of asbestos dust in the brake linings it was receiving from them. Nonetheless, ArvinMeritor did not place any warnings on its products until the early 1980's, and continued to market asbestos-containing brakes until its inventory of them was exhausted sometime in the early 1990's. Not until the fall of 1987 did ArvinMeritor include an express reference to cancer in the warnings on its products.

[Gordon] Bankhead was exposed to asbestos dust from brake linings during the 30 years he worked at automotive maintenance facilities, primarily as a "parts man," starting in 1965 and continuing through his retirement in 1999. As a result of this exposure, Bankhead contracted mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer, in 2009. Before his mesothelioma was diagnosed in January 2010, Bankhead experienced difficulty breathing, and underwent painful medical treatment to drain fluid from one of his lungs. After the diagnosis, Bankhead was told he only had 12 months to live, and as his disease progressed, the quality of his life decreased significantly. At trial, Bankhead's medical experts testified that his condition would become increasingly painful until his inevitable death.

 So there you have it.  In the 1960's the company knew that it was exposing its workers to asbestos fibers, but did not warn its employees of the danger until 1987.  The jury found ArvinMeritor liable for Gordon Bankhead's exposure to asbestos as the cause of his mesothelioma.  After the liability and damages portion of the trial was completed, the Court asked the jury about punitive damages.

Here's where it gets tricky.  ArvinMeritor submitted financial statements that showed the company had a negative net worth.  Despite that "upside down" financial statement, however, the jury awarded Gordon Bankhead $4.5 million in punitive damages.

How could that possibly be, you ask? 

Well, before you get your knickers in a twist, read on and then decide (the following directly quotes the Court of Appeals): 

A separate trial was held to determine the amount of punitive damages to be assessed against each defendant. By the time of that trial, all defendants except ArvinMeritor [...] had settled. At the punitive damages trial, respondents presented an expert witness, Robert Johnson, to testify about ArvinMeritor's financial condition. In evaluating ArvinMeritor's economic status, Johnson reviewed publicly available documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, including ArvinMeritor's 2008, 2009, and 2010 annual 10-K reports; its adjusted 2009 10-K reports; a 2010 proxy statement sent to shareholders; and data regarding its market capitalization. These are "generally accepted financial documents used and relied upon by economists or experts in finance to evaluate a company."

Johnson testified that between 2006 and 2010, ArvinMeritor attained over $3 billion in sales revenue each year, and an average annual cash-flow profit of $111 million. [fn. omitted]  ArvinMeritor's lowest performing year during that period was 2009, but even in that year, it had $95 million in cash available to it. In 2010, ArvinMeritor's annual sales revenues reached $3.59 billion; its annual report indicated it had earned $211 million in cash-flow profit; and it reported to its shareholders that it had earned a $12 million net profit-a conservative figure, as Johnson explained, because companies seek to reduce their reported net income, using legally available deductions such as depreciation, in order to minimize their tax liability. At the end of 2010, ArvinMeritor had on hand some $343 million in cash and cash equivalents, and its outstanding stock had a total market value of almost $2 billion.

ArvinMeritor's chief executive officer, who also served as its board chair and corporate president, earned over $7.6 million in 2010, and stood to receive between $19.9 million and $26.9 million upon leaving the company. Johnson explained that a company's willingness and ability to pay sums of this magnitude to its chief executive is an indicator of financial strength. Given all of these facts, Johnson opined that ArvinMeritor is financially sound.

Johnson acknowledged that ArvinMeritor reported that as of 2010, it had a negative net worth of $1.023 billion. He opined, however, that this number, taken on its own, did not "reflect the full context of ArvinMeritor's financial condition and ability to pay." Johnson explained that net worth is only one of "a number of different tools that we use to assess a company's financial health, wealth and condition," and opined that "net worth is probably one of the least reliable financial metrics or statistics you can use," because there are "a number of financial or accounting transactions" in which a company can engage to lower its net worth, while remaining profitable. Johnson testified that net worth "is not a measure of a company's financial condition totally or their ability to pay," because "even within the guidelines of the generally accepted accounting principles . . . net worth is something that can be pretty easily manipulated." As an example, Johnson noted that a company can reduce its net worth simply by repurchasing shares of its stock.

Johnson explained that because net worth can be unreliable, banks look instead to a company's cash flow and profits, which are the most reliable indicators of its ability to repay debt, in determining whether to lend money to it. For this reason, companies with a negative net worth are still able to borrow money. Indeed, ArvinMeritor itself borrowed a total of $245 million in 2010, and still had $539 million available on its line of credit as of September 30 of that year.

Don't believe it?  Judge for yourself with ArvinMeritor's financial statementsArvinMeritor still exists as Meritor, and was a spinoff of Rockwell. 

Now that you've read why the jury awarded what it did, does the headline accurately tell the rest of the story? 

Hmmmm.

Guess you'll have to keep a cynical eye on those headllines.

Posted by J. Craig Williams on Monday, April 30, 2012


MIPTC Home | View Weblog Archive

Back to top.