June 10, 2008

Three Strikes For Linda Greenhouse: Her Commentary on Williams III Misses the Mark

Linda Greenhouse reported here on the United States Supreme Court's recent cert grant in Williams III. As we pointed out here, the court granted cert only on the question regarding the independent state law ground and declined to review the award for excessiveness. Greenhouse writes that "the justices denied review on the first question, which would have had broad application to all punitive damages cases. In earlier rulings, the Supreme Court has suggested that punitive damages should be no more than nine times the compensatory damages, and perhaps a good deal less than that, but there is evidently not a clear majority to convert the suggestion into a firm rule. Instead, they will hear Philip Morris’s appeal only on the second question, which applies to this convoluted case, now in its ninth post-verdict year, and to no other. The justices, in other words, appeared less concerned with making law than with asserting their own authority over that of state courts on the issue of punitive damages."

Greenhouse's analysis ignores the current state of punitive damages jurisprudence. First, the Supreme Court has not "suggested" that the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages must be in the single digits and perhaps the very low single digits; it has held that such an outcome is mandated by federal due process (subject to a few narrow exceptions, e.g., where the compensatory damages are very small). Second, there plainly is a clear majority for this holding and a firm rule that is required to be applied nationwide. Indeed, the State Farm v. Campbell case was a 6-3 opinion and is controlling authority on this point. Third, the issue raised by the second question is not unique only to this case. It is the question squarely presented by the petition for review to the California Supreme Court in Buell-Wilson v. Ford.