A.H. Robins Co. and its leaders have been sturdy pillars of numerous civic and charitable enterprises in Richmond -- so much so that in 1983, Town and Country magazine listed Chairman E. Claiborne Robins among the five "Most Generous Americans."
But the good works of the 121-year-old company and the family was of no consequence to Kansas courts when judges recently scorned Robins' argument that philanthropy demonstrated an absence of knowing and willful wrongdoing in connection with the Dalkon Shield.
"A person who is ordinarily a philanthropist and humanitarian does not receive thereby a license to commit intentional wrongs on his days off," the Kansas Supreme Court said in a 7-0 decision upholding a record $9.2 million award to a victim of the Dalkon Shield.
Loretta L. Tetuan, now 35, received one of the intrauterine contraceptive devices after her second child was found to be mentally retarded and wore it for nine years. But in 1980, she -- like thousands of other Dalkon Shield users -- was stricken by a life-threatening pelvic infection and lost her uterus and ovaries in surgery. In addition, her marriage broke up.
During the trial in Wichita, Robins lawyer Thomas W. Kemp of San Francisco wanted to demonstrate the company's "basic integrity" with what he called "good guy" evidence. For example, he sought to tell the jury that in 1969, chairman Robins gave his alma mater, the University of Richmond, an unrestricted gift of $50 million. This was said to have been the most generous gift ever made by a living person to an institution of higher education.
Since then, Robins, his son, Claiborne Jr., who is president of the company, and members of the family have given at least $50 million more to the university. They also have given millions to many other philanthropic causes.
Robins said such generosity bore on whether Tetuan would be entitled to punitive damages, which are intended to punish a defendant for malicious, vindictive or willful and wanton invasion of someone's rights. But Tetuan's lawyer, Bradley Post of Wichita, objected, and Sedgwick County Judge Nicholas W. Klein refused to allow what he termed "the good guy stuff."
In May 1985, the jury, which was unaware of the dispute, awarded Tetuan $7.5 million in punitive damages in addition to $1.7 million as compensation for her injuries. The previous largest punitive award, for $6.2 million, had been rendered by a Denver jury in July 1979 for Carie M. Palmer, who, like Tetuan, had suffered a total hysterectomy after using a Dalkon Shield.
In appealing, Robins asserted that Klein's exclusion of the "good guy" evidence was improper. But in the opinion for the unanimous Kansas Supreme Court, Justice Donald Allegruci called it "not relevant" to punitive damages.
"Robins stresses that no Kansas appellate court has ever upheld a punitive damage award of this magnitude," the justice noted. "Neither has any been presented with corporate misconduct of such magnitude and duration."
Robins has until late Thursday to ask the court for a rehearing. In the Palmer case, the Colorado Supreme Court, after sitting on Robins' appeal for nearly five years, upheld the $6.2 million punitive award, and Robins paid it.
In addition to his philanthropy, the elder Robins helped to launch "Businesses Who Care," a coalition of Richmond corporations that has encouraged business donations to charitable and cultural causes.
The elder Robins, now 77, has been a trustee of the University of Richmond since 1951 and led its national $55 million development campaign. His son Claiborne Jr. and younger daughter are also UR His wife and older daughter are members of the board of associates.
In June 1982, eight years after the company halted domestic sales of the Dalkon Shield, the elder Robins, a Baptist, received the Great American Tradition Award of B'nai B'rith International, the Jewish international service organization.
Last year, the commencement issue of the university's alumni quarterly magazine devoted its cover story to the awarding of the new Paragon Medal, its "highest honor," to Claiborne Robins. University Chancellor E. Bruce Heilman said the new medal was created to connote "the premier person of honor in respect of his or her value to the university. It is to be given only 'occasionally in history' and ranks above distinguished service awards, alumni awards and honorary degrees."
In the previous issue, Heilman said: "Never have I known a family or individuals within a family who are...so certain of their responsibility and committed to fulfillment of that responsibility."