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Virginia High Court Says 1:18 Ratio between Plaintiffís Compensatory and Punitive Damages Was Proper in Drunk Driving Case

Coalson v. Canchola
Record No. 130837 (Virginia Supreme Court, February 27, 2014)

by Colleen K. OíBrien, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

This case involved an award of punitive damages in a motor vehicle accident causing alleged personal injuries and where the driver was drunk. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury awarded Plaintiff Coalson $5,600 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages against the Defendant. Plaintiff Stemke received $14,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The Defendant sought remittitur of both punitive damages awards, arguing that the wards were excessive under Virginia law and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The trial court found that the Defendantís conduct was egregious, but reduced Plaintiff Coalsonís punitive damages award to $50,000. The circuit court reduced the amount of Plaintiff Coalsonís punitive damages award because the jury awarded the same amount in punitive damages to Plaintiff Coalson as it did to Plaintiff Stemke despite their different compensatory damages awards. Also, the circuit court ruled that the 1:17.86 ratio between Plaintiffís Coalsonís compensatory and punitive damages was too high, and that something less than a ten (10) percent ratio was proper.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia held that the trial court erred by remitting Plaintiff Coalsonís punitive damage award. Considering Plaintiff Coalsonís and Plaintiff Stemkeís relative ratios of compensatory damages to punitive damages as a basis for granting remittitur was improper. Furthermore, the Defendantís conduct was egregious: he was driving while intoxicated and without a license, which had been revoked because of previous instances of driving while intoxicated.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 (7) convictions for driving while intoxicated on his record, the Defendant drove on several occasions on the day of the accident while drinking alcohol throughout the day. He ignored a police officerís 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, he fled the scene and asked his girlfriend to lie about his involvement.

The Court held that Plaintiff Coalsonís punitive damages were reasonably related to her actual damages and to the degree of necessary punishment, which in this case was great. The ratio of Coalsonís compensatory damages to punitive damages awarded by the jury was 1:17.86. To the court, this was ďhigh,Ē but given the reprehensible and dangerous nature of the Defendantís conduct, it was not unreasonable. The Defendantís conduct was egregious enough to warrant a punitive damages award, and the amount of punitive damages awarded by the jury does not shock the Courtís conscience. Therefore, Virginia precedent indicated that the circuit court should not have remitted the punitive damages award.

The Court also considered whether the punitive damages award violated federal constitutional law and the Defendantís due process rights. Virginia has an interest in promoting public safety through the prevention and deterrence of drunk driving, the Defendant deliberately chose to drive while severely intoxicated, which resulted in physical injury, and the Defendantís conduct was persistent, as demonstrated by his seven prior DWI convictions and by his behavior on day of incident, which put many at risk. Although the Supreme Court of the United State has repeatedly stated that ratios between actual or potential harm and punitive damages should generally be within single digits to satisfy due process requirements, it has also recognized that higher ratios may be constitutional where a defendantís actions are exceptionally reprehensible but result in small economic damage. The disparity between Plaintiff Coalsonís compensatory and punitive damages dissipates when one considers the potential loss to Plaintiff Coalson, who fortunately only experienced little compensatory damages, but who could have been killed by the Defendant. The 1:17.86 award in this case was not excessive, particularly where the Defendant had previously disregarded the law on driving while intoxicated on multiple occasions.

Therefore, the Court held that the circuit court erred in granting the Defendantís motion for remittitur because Plaintiff Coalsonís punitive damages award was not excessive under Virginia law nor did it offend the Defendantís due process rights. The Court reversed the judgment of the circuit court, reinstated the jury verdict awarding Plaintiff Coalson $100,000 in punitive damages, and entered final judgment on the verdict.

Justice McClanahan dissented on the grounds that the circuit courtís remittitur was consistent with prior Virginia precedent and its decision should have been afforded substantial weight by the appellate court.


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