Eshelman v. Puma Biotechnology, Inc., No. 20-1329 (4th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Puma, a pharmaceutical company, created an investor presentation during a proxy contest with Eshelman, a Puma shareholder and the founder of PPD, another pharmaceutical company. Puma invited its shareholders to visit a link on its website where it had published the presentation, which indicated that, a decade earlier, while Eshelman was CEO of PPD, a clinical investigator falsified documents. The presentation was published at least 198 times. Puma also filed the presentation with the SEC, which made it permanently accessible on its website.
Eshelman, a resident of North Carolina, initiated a diversity action with state-law claims of defamation. Puma is incorporated in Delaware and has its principal place of business in California; Auerbach, Puma’s CEO, resides in California. The court found defamatory per se Puma’s statements that Eshelman was “involved in clinical trial fraud” and that Eshelman was replaced as CEO after being forced to testify regarding fraud in 2008. A jury awarded Eshelman $15.85 million in compensatory damages and $6.5 million in punitive damages.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed as to liability but vacated the award after finding that Puma waived its personal jurisdiction claim. Each of the statements at issue is capable of a singular, defamatory interpretation but “there is no evidence justifying such an enormous award.”