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California Court of Appeal Finds That a 10:1 Ratio Between Punitive Damages and Compensatory Damages Awards Satisfies Due Process

A 10-to-1 ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages awards in an insurance bad faith case passes Constitutional muster.  So says the California Court of Appeal in its decision in Nickerson v. Stonebridge Life Insurance Company, __ Cal. App. 4th ___, 2013 Cal. App. LEXIS 583 (2013).  The decision is significant in that it affirms that punitive damages are not limited to a single-digit ratio and that a ratio of punitive to compensatory damages of 10-to-1, and perhaps higher, falls within the maximum permitted under due process.  Additionally, the decision clarifies what damages may be included in fixing the ratio of compensatory to punitive damages.

The Nickerson case concerns a disabled veteran, Nickerson, who was covered under a policy providing coverage for hospital confinement, intensive care unit and emergency room visits issued by Stonebridge.  After suffering an injury to his leg, Nickerson was hospitalized for over 100 days.  However, Stonebridge contended that only a small portion of the time Nickerson stayed in the hospital was considered “Necessary Treatment” under his policy.  On this basis, Stonebridge denied benefits for the rest of the time Nickerson was hospitalized.

Following the denial of his benefits under the policy, Nickerson filed a claim against Stonebridge for breach of the insurance contract and for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.  The trial court found that Nickerson was entitled to $31, 500 in unpaid benefits for the breach of contract cause of action.  The jury returned a special verdict finding Stonebridge’s failure to pay policy benefits was unreasonable and that Nickerson suffered $35,000 in damages for emotional distress.  Finally, the jury awarded Nickerson $19 million in punitive damages, which constituted 5% of Stonebridge’s net worth.  Stonebridge immediately moved for a motion for new trial seeking to reduce the punitive damages award.  The trial court conditionally granted a new trial unless Nickerson agreed to accept a reduction of the punitive damage award to 10 to 1 in accordance with “recent California and federal authority.”  In calculating the amount of punitive damages, the trial court only included the $35,000 in compensatory damages for bad faith and did not include damages for the insurer’s breach of contract or the $12, 500 in attorney’ fees awarded to Nickerson pursuant to Brandt v. Superior Court, 37 Cal. 3d 813, 817 (1985) (when the defendant insurer’s tortious conduct forces insured to retain counsel to obtain policy benefits, the insurer is liable for attorney’s fees).  Thus, the trial court offered Nickerson a reduction of punitive damages to $350,000.

Nickerson rejected the trial court’s offer and appealed, arguing that the trial court erred (1) in concluding it was constrained by law to limit punitive damages to no more than 10 times the compensatory award; and (2) in excluding certain categories of compensatory damages.

The Court of Appeal began its analysis by reciting that a punitive damages award violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment if the award is “grossly excessive.”  In determining whether the trial court’s remittance of the jury’s award of punitive damages to a 10-to-1 ratio with compensatory damages was constitutional, the court followed the three guideposts set out in BMW of North America, Incorporated v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 575 (1996):  (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.  As to the first guidepost, the court found that the degree of reprehensibility factor weighs in favor of Nickerson because, although Nickerson did not suffer physical harm, Stonebridge acted with indifference toward Nickerson’s health and safety,  Nickerson was a financially vulnerable individual, Stonebridge’s conduct was intentionally deceitful and was not an isolated incident.  The court did not consider the third guide post relating to comparable civil penalties because Nickerson conceded that this guide post was of “limited utility.”  Turning to the second and most important guidepost, the court noted that the Supreme Court has consistently refused to establish a ratio beyond which a punitive damage award could not exceed, but that awards significantly exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages generally will not satisfy due process.  The court then stated that the California Supreme Court has found that ratios significantly greater than 9 or 10-to-1 are suspect and may not pass constitutional muster absent “special justification.”  Based on both federal and state case law, the court concluded that the message gleaned from these cases is that due process analysis is flexible and the constitutionality of any award must be based upon the particular facts and circumstances of the case.

Based on its analysis of the three guideposts, the circumstances of this case, the high level of reprehensibility of Stonebridge’s conduct, Stonebridge’s net worth and the small economic damage award justifies an outside constitutional limit of a 10-to-1 ratio of punitive to compensatory damages.  As such, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision to remit the jury’s award to a 10-to-1 ratio.

Additionally, it is important to note that the court also addressed what categories of compensatory damages are included in calculating the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages.  Nickerson argued that “uncompensated potential harm” should be included into the calculation.  However, the court rejected this argument because Nickerson was fully compensated for his emotional distress injuries.  The court also refused to include the $31, 500 in policy benefits awarded to Nickerson because, citing Major v. Western Home Insurance Company, 169 Cal. App. 4th 1197, 1224 (2009), punitive damages are not authorized in contract actions.  The court also refused to include attorney’s fees awarded pursuant to Brandt because they were awarded after the jury awarded punitive damages.  However, it should be noted that if the jury had awarded attorney’s fees, they would have been considered in determining if the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages is excessive because Brandt fees “are considered extra contractual tort damages that compensate a plaintiff for an insurer’s bad faith refusal to pay policy benefits.”  Id (emphasis in original).

The Nickerson decision is highly significant in that the Court of Appeal made it clear that punitive damages awards are not limited to a single-digit ratio and that there is no bright line maximum ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages required by due process.  Although the court strongly suggested that a punitive damage award significantly exceeding a 9 or 10-to-1 ratio could violate due process, the court refused set the 10 to 1 ratio as a maximum cap on all punitive damages awards.  Indeed, given the highly flexible due process analysis adopted by the court, instances where insurers engage in significantly reprehensible acts of bad faith, as determined under the guidepost analysis, may well justify a punitive to compensatory damages ratio which exceeds the 10-to-1 ratio applied in Nickerson.

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