Control on Punitive Damages
The US Supreme Court has clearly stated that “[p]unitive damages may properly be imposed to further a State’s legitimate interests in punishing unlawful conduct and deterring its repetition.” [BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U. S. 559]. These damages often exceed the fines assessed by the state if the same person had acted criminally to damage the plaintiff.
The skills of plaintiff’s trial lawyers have convinced juries to award damages in sums that exceed the annual budget of Greece. The jury assesses the enormous damages because it becomes inflamed by the wrongful conduct of the defendant and agrees with the lawyer’s suggestion that the jury “teach the defendant a lesson” to stop it from doing the same to others. The argument has been successful in thousands of suits brought from Vermont to California and Florida to Washington.
For years punitive damage awards were unlimited. A $40 compensatory damage award resulted in a $5,000,000.00 punitive damages verdict. Some juries assessed billions of dollars in punitive damages with no constraint from the courts other than the wealth of the defendant.
In 2003 the US Supreme Court put limited punitive damages in the United States when in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell 123 S.Ct. 1513, 538 U.S. 408, 155 L.Ed.2d 585 (U.S. 04/07/2003) by a 6-3 vote, overturned a $145 million verdict against an insurer. The Supreme Court concluded that a punitive damages award of $145 million, where full compensatory damages were $1 million, is excessive and violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority limited the ability of state and federal courts to award huge punitive damages awards and concluded that it was improbable that a punitive damage award more than a single digit multiplier of the compensatory damages award would seldom, if ever, pass the due process test. The Supreme Court, in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, supra, set forth specific tests that must be met before punitive damages could fulfill the requirements of due process.
The State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, supra, case arose out of an automobile accident where one party was killed and another severely injured. The Campbells, insured by State Farm attempted to pass six vehicles on a two-lane highway, failed, and caused the driver of an oncoming car to drive off the road to escape collision with the Campbells’ vehicle. The Campbells only had $25,000 coverage per person and $50,000 in the aggregate. The Campbells felt they were not at fault because there was no contact between the two vehicles. State Farm ignored the advice of its adjuster and counsel to accept policy limits demands and took the case to trial. The verdict at trial was more than $180,000 and the State Farm appointed counsel told the Campbells to put their house on the market since they would need the money to pay the verdict. State Farm refused to pay the judgment and to fund an appeal. The Campbells retained personal counsel to pursue an appeal that was not successful, entered into a settlement with the plaintiffs where the plaintiffs agreed to not execute on their judgment in exchange for an assignment of 90% of all money received in a bad faith action by the Campbells against State Farm. Before suit was filed, State Farm paid the full judgment.
© 2020 – Barry Zalma
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 52 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and email@example.com.
Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of the first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.
Over the last 52 years Barry Zalma has dedicated his life to insurance, insurance claims and the need to defeat insurance fraud. He has created the following library of books and other materials to make it possible for insurers and their claims staff to become insurance claims professionals.
Read posts from Barry Zalma at https://parler.com/profile/Zalma/posts
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