No. 27804 -- Radec, Inc. v. Mountainteer Coal Development Company, d/b/a
Marrowbone Development Company
SCOTT, Justice, dissenting:
I respectfully but emphatically
dissent from the majority opinion. In conclusory fashion, and with limited evaluation
of the issues, the majority affirms the submission of the punitive damages issue
to the jury, finds no flaw in the failure to provide the jury with a Garnes
instruction, and approves the jury's punitive damage award in the ratio of 17:1
to the compensatory award. I differ with the majority on each of these issues
and deem the resulting affirmance of a $1.5 million punitive award appalling
under the circumstances of this case and destructive of the public reputation
of the judicial proceeding.
the facts and inferences in this case point so strongly and overwhelmingly in
favor of the [defendant] to the extent that it did not act so maliciously, oppressively,
wantonly, willfully, recklessly, or with criminal indifference to civil obligations
that no reasonable jury could ... reach[ ] a verdict against the [defendant]
on the issue of punitive damages?
Alkire v. First Nat. Bank of Parsons, 197 W. Va. 122, 129, 475 S.E.2d 122, 129 (1996); see also Haynes v. Rhone-Poulenc, Inc., 206 W. Va. 18, 35, 521 S.E.2d 331, 348 (1999). I fail to discern any factual basis to support the determination that the Appellant acted maliciously, oppressively, wantonly, willfully, recklessly, or with criminal indifference to civil obligations that the lower court apparently perceived in the present case.See footnote 1 1
The Garnes factors are not so easily disregarded. Based upon the United States Supreme Court's decision in Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Haslip, 429 U. S. 1 (1991), establishing due process standards for punitive damage awards,See footnote 3 3 the Garnes decision establishes a process for awarding and reviewing a punitive damages issue: Under our system for an award and review of punitive damages awards, there must be: (1) a reasonable constraint on jury discretion. . . . 186 W. Va. at 658, 413 S.E.2d at 899, syl. pt. 2, in part. There was no reasonable constraint in this case; in fact, there was no constraint at all.
Garnes also provided the following guidance regarding the jury instructions at syllabus point three, as follows:
When the trial court instructs
the jury on punitive damages, the court should, at a minimum, carefully explain
the factors to be considered in awarding punitive damages. These factors are
(1) Punitive damages should bear a reasonable relationship to the harm that is likely to occur from the defendant's conduct as well as to the harm that actually has occurred. If the defendant's actions caused or would likely cause in a similar situation only slight harm, the damages should be relatively small. If the harm is grievous, the damages should be greater.
(2) The jury may consider (although the court need not specifically instruct on each element if doing so would be unfairly prejudicial to the defendant), the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct. The jury should take into account how long the defendant continued in his actions, whether he was aware his actions were causing or were likely to cause harm, whether he attempted to conceal or cover up his actions or the harm caused by them, whether/how often the defendant engaged in similar conduct in the past, and whether the defendant made reasonable efforts to make amends by offering a fair and prompt settlement for the actual harm caused once his liability became clear to him.
(3) If the defendant profited from his wrongful conduct, the punitive damages should remove the profit and should be in excess of the profit, so that the award discourages future bad acts by the defendant.
(4) As a matter of fundamental fairness, punitive damages should bear a reasonable relationship to compensatory damages.
(5) The financial position of the defendant is relevant.
Id. at 658-59, 413 S.E.2d at 899-900.
The Appellant objected to
providing the jury with punitive damage instructions, including the Garnes
instruction, presumably as part of a trial strategy to limit emphasis upon the
jury's opportunity to award punitives. No objection was raised to the failure
of the lower court to give the instruction. While I am committed to the concept
that a litigant should not be permitted to slumber on his rights or invite an
error, I am equally committed to the fundamental right to a fair trial, necessitating
clear and complete jury instructions. This Court has invoked the plain error
doctrine to correct egregious errors denying the litigants the right to a fair
trial, even where no objection was raised to the error below. As we stated in
syllabus point one of Shia v. Chvasta, 180 W. Va. 510, 377 S.E.2d 644
party may assign as error the giving or the refusal to give an instruction unless
he objects thereto before the arguments to the jury are begun, stating distinctly,
as to any given instruction, the matter to which he objects and the grounds of his objection; but the court or any appellate court, may, in the interest
of justice, notice plain error in the giving or refusal to give an instruction,
whether or not it has been made subject of an objection. Rule 51, in part,
W. Va. RCP.
Of course, not all instructional errors warrant intervention by means of the plain error doctrine. 'Where an objection is made to an instruction for the first time on appeal and such instruction is not so deficient so as to require invocation of the plain error rule, in consonance with Rule 51, W.Va.R.C.P., this Court will not consider the late objection.' Syl. Pt. 1, Jordan v. Bero, 158 W. Va. 28, 210 S.E.2d 618 (1974). Syl. Pt. 1, Muzelak v. King Chevrolet, Inc., 179 W. Va. 340, 368 S.E.2d 710 (1988).
I believe that the
omission of the Garnes instruction created a constitutionally defective
jury charge which denied due process and which warrants intercession through
the plain error doctrine. Alleged errors of a constitutional magnitude
will generally trigger a review by this Court under the plain error doctrine.
State v. Salmons, 203 W. Va. 561, 571, 509 S.E.2d 842, 852, n.13. In
syllabus point seven of State v. Miller, 194 W. Va. 3, 459 S.E.2d 114
(1995), this Court stated: To trigger application of the 'plain error'
doctrine, there must be (1) an error; (2) that is plain; (3) that affects substantial
rights; and (4) seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation
of the judicial proceedings.
The majority excuses this error of constitutional magnitude and proceeds to summarily dismiss the Appellant's contention that the punitive damage award was excessive. The excessiveness was, in all likelihood, a direct result of the failure of the lower court to provide the jury with the proper guidelines for the award of punitives, as contained in the omitted Garnes instruction. The majority once again launches its examination properly but ultimately falls short of a complete analysis. Indeed, as the majority cites, syllabus point fifteen of TXO Products Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp., 187 W. Va. 457, 419 S.E.2d 870 (1992), provides the proper origin for our inquiry, as follows:
outer limit of the ratio of punitives to compensatory damages in cases in which
the defendant has acted with extreme negligence or wanton disregard but with
no actual intention to cause harm and in which compensatory damages are neither
negligible nor very large is roughly 5 to 1. However, when the defendant has
acted with actual evil intention, much higher ratios are not per se unconstitutional.
This Court's guidelines in Garnes impose an obligation upon the trial court to conduct a review of the punitive damages award. Syllabus point four provides:
the trial court reviews an award of punitive damages, the court should, at a
minimum, consider the factors given to the jury as well as the following additional
(1) The costs of the litigation;
Any criminal sanctions imposed on the defendant for his conduct;
(3) Any other civil actions against the same defendant, based on the same conduct; and
(4) The appropriateness of punitive damages to encourage fair and reasonable settlements when a clear wrong has been committed. A factor that may justify punitive damages is the cost of litigation to the plaintiff.
Because not all relevant information is available to the jury, it is likely that in some cases the jury will make an award that is reasonable on the facts as the jury know them, but that will require downward adjustment by the trial court through remittitur because of factors that would be prejudicial to the defendant if admitted at trial, such as criminal sanctions imposed or similar lawsuits pending elsewhere against the defendant. However, at the option of the defendant, or in the sound discretion of the trial court, any of the above factors may also be presented to the jury.
186 W. Va. 659, 413 S.E.2d at 900, syl. pt. 4.
In BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U. S. 559 (1996), the United States Supreme Court explained that the trial courts, in scrutinizing the constitutionality of a punitive damage award, must review the ratio of the punitive damage award as compared to the actual harm to the plaintiff as reflected in the compensatory damage award. Id. at 582. A high ratio may be justifiable where a defendant's acts are particularly egregious, as determined in Parrott v. Carr Chevrolet, Inc., 965 P.2d 440 (1998), rev. allowed, 328 Or. 418 (1999), concluding that repeated trade practices supported a $300,000 punitives award with only $11,000 in compensatory damages. Where there is no evidence of particularly egregious or evil behavior, however, there is simply no justification for a high ratio. See Jenson v. Medley, 11 P.3d 678, 689 (2000) (reducing punitive award where [t]he ratio of punitive damages to noneconomic damages in this case is about 35:1; no special circumstances are present in this case that justify an exceptionally high ratio of punitive damages in relation to compensatory damages).
The evaluation of the punitive
damage award does not end at the trial court level. This Court is also obligated
to conduct an evaluation, as explained in syllabus point five of Garnes:
petition, this Court will review all punitive damages awards. In our review
of the petition, we will consider the same factors that we require the jury
and trial judge to consider, and all petitions must address each and every factor
set forth in Syllabus Points 3 and 4 of this case with particularity, summarizing
the evidence presented to the jury on the subject or to the trial court at the
post-judgment review stage. Assignments of error related to a factor not specifically
addressed in the petition will be deemed waived as a matter of state law.
186 W. Va. at 659, 413 S.E.2d at 900, syl. pt. 5. Had the majority of this Court engaged in a thorough and exhaustive review of all aspects of this punitive damage award, as required by Garnes, I cannot fathom how it could have justified its decision to affirm. Where is any evidence which would justify any reasonable jury to find actual evil intention on the part of Marrowbone? 187 W. Va. at 461, 419 S.E.2d at 874, syl. pt. 15, in part. I cannot find any. I would reverse, based upon the absence of the Garnes instruction, and hold that an instruction on punitive damages which does not include the Garnes factors in per se reversible. It is the obligation of the court, regardless of the requests or objections of counsel, to ensure that the constitutional mandate of due process inherent in any award of punitive damages be protected. Thus, I dissent.
giving the instruction did not lead to plain error with an outrageous result.