I love seeing a case zig zag through the appellate process … and I especially enjoy reading one where intermediate appellate court reverses the trial court and the highest court then reverses that intermediate appellate court.  I know, I’m sick.

Zig Zag Through Appeals Process

In a decision released yesterday, Goff v. Elmo Greer & Sons Construction Company, the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial court’s decision approving an award of punitive damages in a construction case.  The owners of the property filed suit against the general contractor on a highway widening project.  The owners contracted with the general contractor to use their adjacent land as a lay down area in exchange for compensation.  When the contractor failed to pay the full contracted amount, the owners sued.

Following a trial, the jury found in favor of the land owner and awarded: (a) about $5,300 for the unpaid contract balance; (b) about $9,500 for damages resulting from blasting activities; and (c) about $3,300 for burying debris on the property.  The jury also returned a verdict of $2 million in punitive damages, which the trial court reduced to $1 million.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment as to liability, but reversed the award of punitive damages based upon a finding that the trial court improperly considered Tennessee’s environmental laws in approving the award.  The Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed, holding that the trial court properly considered Tennessee’s environmental statutes in approving the award.

The Goff decision has a number of construction nuggets to analyze.  One of the more significant aspects of the opinion is the jury’s award of punitive damages based upon various environmental laws without any finding of a violation of those laws.   The intermediate appellate court determined that because the jury found that the contractor had not committed an environmental tort, the trial court should not have relied on the environmental statutes and policies in affirming the award of punitive damages.  The Supreme Court disagreed:

The evidence supporting the nuisance claim was the proof regarding buried whole waste tires.  In order to determine the reprehensibility of burying whole waste tires, the trial court considered the State’s policy regarding such action. To this end, the trial court correctly noted that the State has enacted legislation against burying whole waste tires, recited the public policy behind that legislation, acknowledged that [the contractor] was aware of the State’s policy against burying waste tires, and
observed that high civil penalties are permissible for burying waste tires. In our  view, the fact that the legislature has determined it necessary to prevent the improper burial of tires “to protect the public health, safety and welfare” is important in the discussion of the reprehensibility of [the contractor’s] actions.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court did not decide whether a private right of action existed for a claimed violation of the state’s environmental statutes because the jury did not find the existence of any "environmental tort" and neither of the parties raised the issue on appeal.

For the contractors out there, Goff is a good reminder of the total exposure (including significant punitive damages) for violation of state waste disposal and environmental laws.  For the legal practitioner, Goff instructs that a statute may be used to define the public policy for proving punitive damages even when there is no violation of the actual statute.