The Lawletter Vol 39 No 6
When a jury awards different amounts of compensatory damages to multiple plaintiffs in the same case but also awards each plaintiff the same amount of punitive damages, can a court compare the compensatory damages awards to determine whether a punitive damages award is excessive? That was the issue before the Virginia Supreme Court in the case of Coalson v. Canchola, 287 Va. 242, 754 S.E.2d 525 (2014). There, an intoxicated motorist (Canchola) caused an accident that injured another driver (Coalson) and the other driver's passenger (Stemke). In an action by both injured parties against Canchola, the jury awarded compensatory damages of $5,600 to Coalson and $14,000 to Stemke, in addition to awarding $100,000 in punitive damages to each of them. The trial court remitted Coalson's punitive damages award, noting a "significant disparity" between the plaintiffs' compensatory damages awards but identical awards of punitive damages. On appeal, the Coalson court first determined that punitive damages were warranted based on Canchola's egregious conduct, as follows:
Canchola was driving while intoxicated and without a license, which had been revoked because of previous instances of driving while intoxicated. Despite having at least seven convictions for driving while intoxicated on his record, Canchola drove on several occasions on the day of the accident while drinking alcohol throughout the day. He ignored a police officer's warning not to drive and engaged in deception so that the officer would not discover he was driving, after which he drank even more and then attempted to drive again. After causing an accident that could have resulted in serious injuries, Canchola fled the scene and asked his girlfriend to lie about his involvement.
Id. at 250, 754 S.E.2d at 529.
The court also determined that the ratio of Coalson's punitive damages to compensatory damages (1:17.86) was "high" but not unreasonably or strikingly out of proportion. Id. at 251, 754 S.E.2d at 529. The court further ruled that the ratio was not excessive for purposes of federal due process, even though under federal precedent the ratio between actual or potential harm and punitive damages should generally be within single digits.
Addressing the central issue in the case, the Coalson court considered whether the jury properly awarded punitive damages in the same amount to plaintiffs whose compensatory damages differed, thereby applying different ratios to different plaintiffs based on the same conduct by the defendant. The court concluded that the jury acted properly, reasoning as follows:
We have not previously addressed whether it is proper to compare punitive damages
awards in evaluating excessiveness. However, in Allied Concrete Co. v. Lester, 285 Va. 295, 312, 736 S.E.2d 699, 708 (2013), this Court held that a trial court may not compare verdicts to evaluate the excessiveness of compensatory damages. Likewise, in John Crane, Inc. v. Jones, 274 Va. 581, 595, 650 S.E.2d 851, 858 (2007), the Court declined to compare verdicts in determining whether compensatory damages were excessive.
We hold that the same rationale stated in John Crane, Inc. is true regarding comparing punitive damages awards: "[Comparing verdicts] is not probative of whether a verdict is excessive; rather that determination must be made based on the facts and circumstances of each case." Id. The circuit court's consideration of Coalson's and Stemke's relative ratios of compensatory damages to punitive damages as a basis for granting remittitur was error.
Id. at 249-50, 754 S.E.2d at 529.
In dissent, Justice McClanahan asserted that the jury's verdict was either arbitrary or a result of partiality or prejudice. She explained:
As compared to Stemke's punitive damage verdict, which was a little over 7 times
the compensatory damage verdict, the jury verdict for Coalson against the same defendant for the same conduct amounted to nearly 18 times the verdict. In other words, the jury punished Canchola more severely for the injuries sustained by Coalson than for the injuries sustained by Stemke arising from the same accident. If not arbitrary, the award was based on partiality toward Coalson or prejudice against Canchola.
Id. at 256, 754 S.E.2d at 532 (McClanahan, J., dissenting).