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Punishment Versus Proportionality in Virginia Punitive Damages Decision

As reported by Virginia Lawyers Weekly (subscription may be required), a very recent decision of the Supreme Court of Virginia stemming from a car accident ruled that a punitive damages award of almost eighteen times greater than a compensatory damages award should have been allowed to stand by the trial court.

In the case of Coalson v. Canchola, two plaintiffs sued a drunk driver for injuries sustained in an auto accident caused when the defendant made a left turn across of the plaintiffs' path while talking on a cellular telephone. The defendant had a lengthy history of drunk driving and had been drinking most of the day of the accident. At one point during the day, the defendant had actually disregarded a police officer's advice not to drive and had his girlfriend temporarily drive in order to deceive the officer. At trial, one plaintiff was awarded $5,600.00 in compensatory damages plus $100,000.00 in punitive damages, while the other plaintiff received an award of $14,000.00 in compensatory damages, plus $100,000.00 in punitive damages. The trial court then granted remittitur and reduced the punitive damages on the $5,600.00 compensatory award to $50,000.00, from which that plaintiff appealed. 

In reversing the trial court's remittitur, the Supreme Court recognized that, in some situations, the need to punish a defendant for egregious behavior as well as the potential harm the behavior could have caused outweighs proportionality, The punitive damages award did not "shock the conscience" and was not unconstitutionally out of proportion to the compensatory award, due to the defendant's extreme behavior. As there are no rigid rules setting a proportionality ratio in Virginia (aside from the $350,000.00 punitive damages cap), and as the Court found that comparison of verdicts is not probative of whether a punitive award is excessive, the Court reversed the remittitur and reinstated the $100,000.00 punitive damages award.    

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