July 4, 2008

Where Does the Exxon Valdez Punitive Damages Award Rank on the List of Largest Punitive Damages Awards to Survive Appeal?

Wall Street Journal reporter Russell Gold emailed us with the following question: "If the full $507.5 million is upheld by the lower court, where does the Exxon Valdez award rank among largest punitive damage awards upheld by appeals courts?"

As far as we can tell, the Exxon Valdez award is third on the list, behind these two:

1. The $1.2 billion award against the estate of Ferdinand Marcos for human rights violations, affirmed in Hilao v. Estate of Marcos (9th Cir. 1996) 103 F.3d 767.

2. The $1 billion award affirmed by the Second Circuit last year in Motorola Credit Corp. v. Uzan (2d Cir. 2007) 509 F.3d 74.

A few others have reached into the hundreds of millions. See Time Warner Entertainment v. Six Flags Over Georgia (Ga. Ct. App. 2002) 563 S.E.2d 178, cert. denied [$257 million in punitives affirmed]. Just recently, the West Virginia Supreme Court declined to review a $270 million punitive damages award against NiSource, Inc., which plans to petition for certiorari.

So we'll put this question to our readers: are you aware of any other punitive damages awards larger than $507 million that have survived appeal? (We're aware of many larger awards that didn't survive appellate scrutiny, like the $28 billion award in Bullock v. Philip Morris.) Let us know by emailing or leaving a comment.

UPDATE (on 7/5/08): A commentor has posed the question whether any other punitive damages awards have been reduced to a one-to-one ratio by appellate review. We're aware of quite a few awards fall into that category. In California, for example, the relatively recent opinions in Jet Source Charter, Inc. v. Doherty (2007) 148 Cal.App.4th 1, 11 and Walker v. Fire Ins. Exchange (2007) 153 Cal.App.4th 965, 975 both reduced punitive damages awards down to a one-to-one ratio. A number of cases from other jurisdictions have done the same thing. (See, e.g., Williams v. ConAgra Poultry Co. (8th Cir. 2004) 378 F.3d 790, 799; Boerner v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. (8th Cir. 2005) 394 F.3d 594, 603; TVT Records v. Island Def Jam Music Group (S.D.N.Y. 2003) 279 F.Supp.2d 413, 461, revd. on other grounds (6th Cir. 2005) 412 F.3d 82.) Such decisions are not exactly commonplace, but they happen often enough not to be particularly newsworthy.

A case in which a punitive damages award was reduced to a 1.4-to-one ratio is currently pending before the California Supreme Court in Roby v. McKesson (2006) 146 Cal.App.4th 63, review granted April 18, 2007 , S149752. The ratio issue hasn't gotten much attention in the briefing compared to other issues, but the issue might take on an increased prominence now in light of Exxon Shipping Co. The California Supreme Court also has the opportunity to address this issue by granting the pending petition in Buell-Wilson v. Ford.