January 21, 2009

Stevens v. Vons: $16.7M in Punitive Damages Reduced to $1.2M, Ratio of 1-to-1

The California Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Six) issued this unpublished opinion yesterday, affirming a trial court's decision to reduce a large punitive damages award.

The plaintiff, a grocery store employee, sued for sexual harassment and retaliation. A jury ruled for the plaintiff and awarded $1,672,988 in compensatory damages and ten times that amount in punitive damages ($16,729,880). The trial court ordered a conditional new trial on excessive damages grounds, but offered the plaintiff a choice of accepting a remittutur, reducing the damages to $1.2 million in compensatory damages and an equal amount in punitive damages. The plaintiff accepted the remittitur. The defendant appealed from the judgment and the plaintiff cross-appealed from the reduction of the punitive damages.

The defendant argued on appeal that the plaintiff failed to prove that a managing agent of the store had ratified the conduct of the employee who harassed the plaintiff. The Court of Appeal rejected that argument, finding that there was sufficient evidence to support the award of punitive damages.

On the plaintiff's cross-appeal, however, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's determination that the the 10-to-1 ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages awarded by the jury was excessive, and that the proper ratio is 1-to-1. In affirming the reduced the award, the Court of Appeal noted that the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct was "low to moderate," that the maximum statutory penalty for the defendant's conduct is only $150,000, and that the compensatory damages were "substantial." As we noted recently in another post, a small but growing number of appellate courts have finally begun to implement the Supreme Court's statement in State Farm v. Campbell that the ratio of punitive damages should be low, perhaps only 1-to-1, when compensatory damages are substantial.

This opinion also draws on the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Exxon Shipping as support for the 1-to-1 ratio:

The reasonableness of the trial court's selection of a 1:1 ratio is supported by Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker (2008) __U.S. __ [128 S.Ct. 2605, 171 L.Ed.2d 570]. In that case the United States Supreme Court observed that there are "several studies . . . showing the median ratio of punitive to compensatory verdicts, reflecting what juries and judges have considered reasonable across many hundreds of punitive awards." (Id., 128 S.Ct. at p. 2632.) The "studies cover cases of the most as well as the least blameworthy conduct triggering punitive liability, from malice and avarice, down to recklessness, and even gross negligence in some jurisdictions. The data put the median ratio for the entire gamut of circumstances at less than 1:1, . . . meaning that the compensatory award exceeds the punitive award in most cases. In a well functioning system, we would expect that awards at the median or lower would roughly express jurors' sense of reasonable penalties in cases with no earmarks of exceptional blameworthiness within the punishable spectrum . . . ." (Id., at p. 2633.)
The Supreme Court noted that it "has long held that '[p]unitive damages by definition are not intended to compensate the injured party, but rather to punish the tortfeasor . . . and to deter him and others from similar extreme conduct.' [Citation.]" (Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, supra, 128 S.Ct. at p. 2633.) The trial court here could have reasonably concluded that punitive damages of $1.2 million, together with compensatory damages in the same amount, were sufficient to punish appellant and "'deter [it] and others from similar extreme conduct.' " (Ibid.)
This is exactly the sort of thing we had in mind when we predicted that the Exxon Shipping case, although not binding on state courts, will nonetheless be persuasive to some lower courts because the reasoning of Exxon Shipping applies to all types of punitive damages cases, not just maritime cases.
The plaintiff in this case was represented on appeal by appellate specialist and blogger Donna Bader, who operates An Appeal to Reason.

Hat tip: California Attorney's Fees.