Academic journal article Southern Law Journal

Recent Trends in Punitive Damages Jurisprudence: Are Excessive Awards Galloping Away, or Are Courts Acting in Good Faith to Rein Them In?

Academic journal article Southern Law Journal

Recent Trends in Punitive Damages Jurisprudence: Are Excessive Awards Galloping Away, or Are Courts Acting in Good Faith to Rein Them In?

Article excerpt


For years this court generally, and I personally, have struggled to apply Gore and Campbell faithfully to the cases before us. This case represents but one of the many problems that have cropped up in the seven years since the court decided Campbell. The courts around here are in need of - indeed, I will assert that we deserve - further guidance that only the Court can provide. Whether the Court agrees with my analysis, or the majority, or something in between, does not matter to me. But it would be a responsible act of comity for the Court to say something to help in future cases.1

Except in the handful of high profile Supreme Court cases in which inconsistence can be clearly observed between the Supreme Court's 'marching orders' in the remand and the state court's subsequent disposition of the case, there is virtually no evidence of a lack of fidelity by lower courts to the constitutional guideposts governing review of punitive damages awards.2

The opening quote from the dissenting opinion in Hamlin v. Hampton Lumber Mills, Inc., a2011 Oregon appellate case, captures the judge's frustration in attempting to apply the U.S. Supreme Court's punitive damages jurisprudence.3 The uncertainty arose in part after the Court let stand a punitive damages award of $79.5 million in a case against tobacco giant Philip Morris.4 This award was ninety-six times the amount of the compensatory award of $821,000. Though the case was decided on state procedural rather than due process grounds,5 the award seemed to fly in the face of the Court's State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell decision, which stated that few awards with a punitive / actual damages ratio greater than 9:1 would satisfy due process.6 A mere two years after Hamlin, a study published in The Catholic University Law Review, also quoted above, analyzed over 500 punitive damages cases, and concluded that lower courts were, for the most part, doing a commendable job applying the Court's directives.7

This paper will first provide a brief historical overview of the U.S. Supreme Court's early punitive damages jurisprudence. The paper will next examine the Court's gradual incorporation of the Due Process Clause8 into its determination that excessive punitive damages awarded by state courts are subject to constitutional scrutiny. This will be followed by an analysis of the Court's opinions in Campbell and BMW of North America v. Gore.10 The Court first enunciated guideposts to aid lower courts in determining whether punitive damages awards satisfied due process concerns in Gore, and later clarified its intent regarding the guideposts in State Farm. The paper will then briefly discuss Philip Morris v. Williams, an outlier case from Oregon that let stand a substantial punitive award against the tobacco company.11 Finally, the paper will analyze four cases from various settings that illustrate how lower courts are reviewing punitive damages awards. The analyses by the respective courts flesh out the conclusion reached by the author of The Catholic University Law Review article that lower state and federal courts "appear to be making conscientious efforts to honor the guideposts, interpret them reasonably, and apply them in the spirit in which they were promulgated."12


Punitive damages have long been understood as a remedy designed to punish and deter wrongdoers.13 The concept, whether referred to as punitive damages or by another name,14 dates back thousands of years to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.15 The first recorded opinions to discuss punitive damages occurred in 1763,16 in the cases of Huckle v. Money11 and Wilkes v. Wood.18 One commentator has referred to these "seminal cases" as the "first explicit articulation of the doctrine of punitive damages."19

Soon after the U.S. gained its independence, courts began to import the English common law concept of punitive damages into its own common law system. …

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