State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co. v. CampbellAnnotate this Case
538 U.S. 408 (2003)
OCTOBER TERM, 2002
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE CO. v. CAMPBELL ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF UTAH
No. 01-1289. Argued December 11, 2002-Decided April 7, 2003
Although investigators and witnesses concluded that Curtis Campbell caused an accident in which one person was killed and another permanently disabled, his insurer, petitioner State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (State Farm), contested liability, declined to settle the ensuing claims for the $50,000 policy limit, ignored its own investigators' advice, and took the case to trial, assuring Campbell and his wife that they had no liability for the accident, that State Farm would represent their interests, and that they did not need separate counsel. In fact, a Utah jury returned a judgment for over three times the policy limit, and State Farm refused to appeal. The Utah Supreme Court denied Campbell's own appeal, and State Farm paid the entire judgment. The Campbells then sued State Farm for bad faith, fraud, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court's initial ruling granting State Farm summary judgment was reversed on appeal. On remand, the court denied State Farm's motion to exclude evidence of dissimilar out-of-state conduct. In the first phase of a bifurcated trial, the jury found unreasonable State Farm's decision not to settle. Before the second phase, this Court refused, in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U. S. 559, to sustain a $2 million punitive damages award which accompanied a $4,000 compensatory damages award. The trial court denied State Farm's renewed motion to exclude dissimilar out-of-state conduct evidence. In the second phase, which addressed, inter alia, compensatory and punitive damages, evidence was introduced that pertained to State Farm's business practices in numerous States but bore no relation to the type of claims underlying the Campbells' complaint. The jury awarded the Campbells $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $145 million in punitive damages, which the trial court reduced to $1 million and $25 million respectively. Applying Gore, the Utah Supreme Court reinstated the $145 million punitive damages award.
Held: A punitive damages award of $145 million, where full compensatory damages are $1 million, is excessive and violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 416-429.
(a) Compensatory damages are intended to redress a plaintiff's concrete loss, while punitive damages are aimed at the different purposes
of deterrence and retribution. The Due Process Clause prohibits the imposition of grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments on a tortfeaser. E. g., Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., 532 U. S. 424, 433. Punitive damages awards serve the same purpose as criminal penalties. However, because civil defendants are not accorded the protections afforded criminal defendants, punitive damages pose an acute danger of arbitrary deprivation of property, which is heightened when the decisionmaker is presented with evidence having little bearing on the amount that should be awarded. Thus, this Court has instructed courts reviewing punitive damages to consider (1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's misconduct, (2) the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award, and (3) the difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases. Gore, supra, at 575. A trial court's application of these guideposts is subject to de novo review. Cooper Industries, supra, at 424. Pp. 416-418.
(b) Under Gore's guideposts, this case is neither close nor difficult.
(1) To determine a defendant's reprehensibility-the most important indicium of a punitive damages award's reasonableness-a court must consider whether: the harm was physical rather than economic; the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others; the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and the harm resulted from intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident. Gore, 517 U. S., at 576-577. It should be presumed that a plaintiff has been made whole by compensatory damages, so punitive damages should be awarded only if the defendant's culpability is so reprehensible to warrant the imposition of further sanctions to achieve punishment or deterrence. Id., at 575. In this case, State Farm's handling of the claims against the Campbells merits no praise, but a more modest punishment could have satisfied the State's legitimate objectives. Instead, this case was used as a platform to expose, and punish, the perceived deficiencies of State Farm's operations throughout the country. However, a State cannot punish a defendant for conduct that may have been lawful where it occurred, id., at 572. Nor does the State have a legitimate concern in imposing punitive damages to punish a defendant for unlawful acts committed outside of its jurisdiction. The Campbells argue that such evidence was used merely to demonstrate, generally, State Farm's motives against its insured. Lawful out-of-state conduct may be probative when it demonstrates the deliberateness and culpability of the defendant's action in the State where it is tortious, but that conduct must have a nexus to