May 31, 2010

The "Big Oil Polluter Pays Act": Probably Unconstitutional

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has introduced a proposed bill called the "Big Oil Polluter Pays Act" (S.3345), which is intended to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Exxon Shipping v. Baker. In light of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, the proposal is likely to be popular. But the Act's constitutionality is questionable at best.

The Act would amend the U.S. Code to provide:

In a civil action for damages arising out of a maritime tort, punitive damages may be assessed without regard to the amount of compensatory damages assessed in the action.
There's nothing unconstitutional about the basic premise of passing legislation to override the Exxon Shipping decision. The majority in that case adopted a 1-to-1 ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages for maritime cases as a matter of federal common law, and not as a matter of constitutional law. Congress clearly has the authority to change a common law rule.

The actual text of the act, however, goes much further than just changing the common law rule adopted in Exxon Shipping. The act says that punitive damages would be assessed "without regard to the amount of compensatory damages" in maritime actions. That language is directly contrary to the Supreme Court's decisions in BMW v. Gore and State Farm v. Campbell, which held that the constitution requires proportionality between punitive damages and actual damages.

Thus, if the Act passed, the lower courts would be required to strike it down under BMW and Campbell. The more interesting question is: what would happen if the Act passed and the question of its constitutionality made its way up to the Supreme Court? There is no guarantee that the court as presently constituted would adhere to the BMW and Campbell analysis. Justices Souter and O'Connor, who joined the majority in both cases, are gone. Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Ginsburg dissented in both cases. If the dissenters could pick up two more votes from the new members of the court, they might be willing to jettison the BMW/Campbell analysis.