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Coalson v. Canchola, 287 Va. 242, 754 S.E.2d 525 (2014)

In Coalson, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed a trial court’s remittitur of a jury’s punitive damage award to a plaintiff injured by a drunk driver’s negligence. The decision thoughtfully articulates the public policy reasons favoring punitive damage awards. It also explores the substantial discretion that juries possess in determining the appropriate amount of such awards. In so doing, the case provides a valuable primer on punitive damage awards; one worthy of every personal injury practitioner’s reading.

DUI appeals lawyer, Virginia appellate attorney

The plaintiffs, Coalson and Stemke, were driver and passenger in a car struck broadside at an intersection by defendant Canchola. The defendant drove his vehicle with a blood alcohol content, “almost twice the legal limit at the time of the accident.” The evidence established that the defendant possessed, “an extensive record of driving while intoxicated…and one of driving with a suspended license.” On the day of the collision, a law enforcement officer warned the defendant not to drive due to his apparent intoxication. The evidentiary record contained other evidence of aggravating circumstances relevant to the defendant’s vehicle operation. Each plaintiff received relatively moderate personal injuries. The jury awarded Coalson the sum of $5,600 in compensatory damages, and, awarded $14,000 in compensatory damages to Stemke. The jury further awarded $100,000 in punitive damages to each plaintiff.

Post-trial, the defendant’s counsel sought remittitur of both punitive damage awards, contending that they “were excessive under Virginia law and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The trial court noted the defendant’s “egregious” conduct, sustained Stemke’s punitive damage award, and granted remittitur of Coalson’s award, and reduced it by half. The trial court noted a “significant disparity” between the plaintiffs’ compensatory damage awards. It ruled the jury’s identical punitive damage awards to be “arbitrarily made.” In reducing Coalson’s punitive damage award to $50,000, the trial court noted that it rendered her compensatory damage award to “less than a ten percent ratio” in relation to her punitive damage award. Coalson appealed, and, in reversing the trial court, the Supreme Court ruled that, “Coalson’s punitive damages award was not excessive under Virginia law nor did it offend Canchola’s due process rights.” Justice McClanahan filed an expressive dissenting opinion.

The majority first analyzed the issues under Virginia law. In so doing, it reaffirmed several legal principles applicable to punitive damages, as articulated in prior decisions. Those principles included that the purposes of punitive damage awards include protection of the public, punishment of the defendant, and deterrence of the defendant and others from engaging in such harmful behavior as resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries. The court noted that punitive damages do not compensate the plaintiff; instead, they serve as a warning. In addition, the court stated that: “A punitive damage award is generally left to the jury’ discretion because there is no set standard for determining the amount of punitive damages.”

In reviewing a remittitur award, the Supreme Court will perform de novo review, with an independent review of the record; yet, it likewise will give substantial weight to the trial court’s action. To justify remittitur, the court again cited precedent to state that, “a jury’s award must be so excessive that it shocks the conscience of the trial court, indicating that the jury’s decision was motivated by ‘passion, corruption or prejudice.’” Relevant considerations include the “’reasonableness between the damages sustained and the amount of the award and the measurement of punishment required, whether the award will amount to double recovery, the proportionality between the compensatory and punitive damages, and the ability of the defendant to pay.’” In a first-impression ruling, the court rejected the trial court’s comparison of Coalson’s and Stemke’s punitive damage awards. It held that the trial court’s comparison of the plaintiffs’ “relative ratios of compensatory damages to punitive damages as a basis for granting remittitur was error.”

Upon its detailed review of factual record, the court found that Coalson’s punitive damages award were “reasonably related to her actual damages and to the degree of necessary punishment, which in this case is great.” It commented on the defendant’s “egregious,” “reprehensible” and “dangerous” conduct, and noted that the defendant presented no evidence on his ability to pay punitive damages. Finally, it interpreted the record to find that the jury’s punitive damages award to Coalson, “does not shock the Court’s conscience.”

Turning to federal due process considerations, the court relied upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 418 (2003), to recognize a tripartite federal standard for review of punitive damage awards. It quoted Campbell’s guidelines: “(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 in comparable cases.” As to the first guideline, the court also relied upon Campbell to note the relevance of such factors as whether the defendant caused physical or economic harm, evinced a reckless disregard for the plaintiff’s health and safety, preyed upon the vulnerable, engaged repeatedly in the harmful conduct, and caused harm through intentional, malicious or mere accidental means.

Upon the facts of this case, the court again found that the defendant’s conduct supported the jury’s award of punitive damages, and the amount awarded. The court did find the double-digit ratio between Coalson’s compensatory and punitive damages award to be somewhat high. Yet, it noted the countervailing facts of the jury’s relatively modest compensatory damages award, and the defendant’s “exceptionally reprehensible” conduct. Finally, it noted the existence under Virginia law of both civil and criminal penalties for the defendant’s behaviors, and the fact that he continued to repeatedly engage in such behavior despite the imposition of such penalties. Thus, the court found no Fourteenth Amendment due process violation in the jury’s punitive damages award.

In dissent, Justice McClanahan asserted that the majority abandoned proper consideration of the reasonableness of the proportionality of the jury’s compensatory and punitive damages award. In addition, the dissent stated that, “the majority affords little weight to the circuit court’s action, rather than the ‘substantial weight’ the circuit court is due.”

The dissent went on to maintain that the trial court considered the legal factors relevant to remittitur, and correctly apply the facts of the case to sustain the motion to remit the punitive damages award to Coalson. It specifically disagreed with the majority regarding the trial court’s comparison of Coalson’s and Stemke’s compensatory and punitive damages awards. In so doing, the dissent stated, “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.”

The Coalson decision underscores the complexity, and potentially controversial nature, of remittitur analysis respecting punitive damages awards. A court’s analysis may include both Virginia law considerations and constitutional due process analysis. Yet, the case reaffirms the strong and vital foundation for punitive damages under both Virginia and federal law. Punitive damages exist to aid in societal efforts to address, and hopefully deter, egregious conduct that causes harm to others.

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