Bankers Life & Cas. Co. v. Crenshaw
486 U.S. 71 (1988)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bankers Life & Cas. Co. v. Crenshaw, 486 U.S. 71 (1988)

Bankers Life & Casualty Co. v. Crenshaw

No. 85-1765

Argued November 30, 1987

Decided May 16, 1988

486 U.S. 71

Syllabus

In a state court suit upon an insurance claim for loss of a limb, the jury awarded appellee the $20,000 provided by his policy and punitive damages of $1.6 million based on appellant's bad-faith refusal to pay the claim. Concluding that the punitive damages award was not excessive in light of appellant's financial worth and the degree of its wrongdoing, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the verdict without modification, and assessed an additional 15% penalty against appellant in accordance with a state statute imposing such a penalty on parties who appeal unsuccessfully from money judgments or other categories of judgments whose value may be readily determined. Although the appeal had not raised a federal constitutional challenge to the size of the punitive damages award, appellant argued, in its petition for rehearing, that the award "was clearly excessive, not reasonably related to any legitimate purpose, constitutes excessive fine, and violates constitutional principles." Appellant's Motion to Correct Judgment also alleged that the statutory penalty violated its equal protection rights under the Federal and State Constitutions. Without opinion, the State Supreme Court denied the petition for rehearing and the Motion to Correct Judgment.

Held:

1. This Court will not reach appellant's claims that the punitive damages award violated the Due Process, Contract, and Excessive Fines Clauses of the Federal Constitution, since those claims were not raised and passed upon in state court. Hathorn v. Lovorn, 457 U. S. 255, distinguished. The petition for rehearing's vague and general appeal to constitutional principles was insufficient to adequately raise the Contract Clause or due process claims. Similarly, the petition's reference to the award's excessiveness is too oblique to have properly raised the Federal Excessive Fines Clause claim, since no mention was made of the Clause, the Federal Constitution, or federal law, and the Mississippi Constitution contains its own Excessive Fines Clause, which the State Supreme Court could have taken to underlie the excessiveness challenge if it understood appellant to be offering a constitutional challenge. Assuming that this Court's "not pressed or passed upon below" rule is not jurisdictional, but is merely a prudential restriction, the more prudent course here is to decline review of the important and difficult Federal Excessive Fines Clause issue. This course will permit a number of less intrusive,

Page 486 U. S. 72

and possibly more appropriate, resolutions by the state legislature or courts, while any ultimate review of the question in this Court will gain the benefit of a well developed record and a reasoned opinion on the merits by the State Supreme Court. Pp. 486 U. S. 76-80.

2. Mississippi's penalty statute does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, since it is reasonably tailored to achieve the State's legitimate objectives of discouraging frivolous appeals, compensating appellees for the intangible costs of litigation, and conserving judicial resources. The statute does not discriminate against a particular class of appellants in an arbitrary and irrational fashion, since it broadly applies to both plaintiffs and defendants, as well as to a variety of specified types of readily determined judgments, and since its limitation to appellants from such judgments represents a rational, if partial, attempt to deter frivolous appeals without the substantial judicial intervention that the inclusion of other types of claims would require. Moreover, the statute poses little danger of discouraging meritorious appeals along with insubstantial ones, since the 15% penalty operates only after a judgment has been affirmed without modification, and represents a relatively modest additional assessment. Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U. S. 56, distinguished. Although the State might have enacted a statute that more precisely served the intended goals, perfection is not required under the rational basis test. Pp. 486 U. S. 80-85.

483 So.2d 254, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, J., joined, in all but Part II of which WHITE, J, joined, in all but Part II and n. 1 of which O'CONNOR and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and in all but Part III of which BLACKMUN, J., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 486 U. S. 85. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 486 U. S. 86. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 486 U. S. 89. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 486 U. S. 89. STEVENS and KENNEDY, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 486 U. S. 73

Primary Holding
A party cannot preserve a constitutional issue for appeal merely by citing the Constitution in state court and waiting until the appellate process to state the specific part of the Constitution at stake.
Facts
A car alternator on which Crenshaw was working struck him on the foot and injured him after it rolled off his workbench. His doctor eventually suggested a surgery consultation, and a surgeon at the hospital decided that Crenshaw needed to have his lower leg amputated. He maintained a $20,000 policy with his insurance company, Bankers Life, and he submitted a claim after the amputation based on loss of limb due to accidental bodily injury. However, Bankers Life responded that the amputation had been caused by a pre-existing condition of arteriosclerosis rather than the accident, which obviated its obligation to pay on the policy. Crenshaw sued Bankers Life for a bad-faith refusal to pay.

Crenshaw received the policy limits of $20,000 through a jury verdict, as well as $1.6 million in punitive damages, and the state supreme court affirmed the jury verdict, finding that the punitive damages were not excessive. At this stage, Bankers Life had not yet raised a constitutional challenge to the size of the award. It then sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the punitive damages award violated the Constitution because it was excessive.

Opinions

Majority

  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

Granted, the defendant may have a valid constitutional argument based on the size of the punitive damages award, which might be disallowed under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. However, it failed to raise this federal claim before the state supreme court. The defendant should have established on the record that it presented a federal claim of which those courts had been made aware. Instead, it merely argued that the fine was excessive rather than explaining that it was unconstitutionally excessive.

Concurrence

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia

The statute on which the court's jurisdiction is based, 28 U.S.C. Section 1257(3), does not allow the court to resolve federal constitutional claims that had not previously been raised at the state court level.

Concurrence

  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia

A related due process concern raised by the defendant may be well-taken in that Mississippi allows juries to award any amount of punitive damages for torts in which they find hat the defendant acted with a certain mental state. This was not the main thrust of the appeal, however, so it should not be decided here.

Concurrence

  • Antonin Scalia (Author)

Justice White appropriately found that existing law resolved the issue, such that the court did not need to exercise its discretion.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)

Recused

  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

Case Commentary

Parties do not need to make exactly the same arguments on appeal that they made at the trial level, but they must raise federal questions at the trial level if they plan to raise them on appeal, and they must refrain from asserting new rights that the trial court never was asked to consider.

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