Bennett v. Reynolds, No. 08-0074, 2010 WL 2541096 (Tex. June 25, 2010).

By Natalie Barletta and Andrew Wooley

In Bennett v. Reynolds the Supreme Court of Texas clarifies that the maximum ratio for exemplary to actual damages in Texas will rarely exceed 4 to 1 and that a defendant’s conduct generally, not just that specifically related to a tort, may be considered in gauging reprehensibility for federal due process purposes.

Reynolds sued Bennett and the Bonham Corporation, of which Bennett served as president, for conversion, alleging that they sold thirteen head of Reynolds’s cattle that strayed onto corporate land. The trial court awarded $5,327.11 in actual damages for the cattle’s market value and exemplary damages of $250,000 against Bennett and $1 million against the corporation. On appeal, Bennett and the corporation argued that the exemplary-to-compensatory ratios of 47:1 as to Bennett and 188:1 as to the Corporation “offend the ‘substantive’ limitations of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Supreme Court of Texas agreed, and remanded the case to the court of appeals for remittitur consistent with its opinion.

The supreme court reached its conclusion that the exemplary damages award in Bennett violated federal due process constraints by analyzing it within the framework that the United States Supreme Court established in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 568 (1996), and subsequently refined in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 418 (2003), that is, (1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct; (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.

In addressing the first element of the Gore framework, the court examined each of the five reprehensibility factors identified in State Farm: (a) whether the harm was physical rather than economic, (b) whether the conduct showed an indifference to or reckless disregard for the health or safety of others, (c) whether the target of the conduct was financially vulnerable, (d) whether the conduct was repeated rather than an isolated incident, and (e) whether the harm resulted from malice or deceit as opposed to mere accident. After looking at each of the factors, the court concluded that only one factor was satisfied—that Bennett acted with malice or deceit.
An important aspect of the court’s holding regarding reprehensibility was its conclusion that “[a] reprehensibility analysis [for federal due process purposes] can therefore consider, to some extent, surrounding circumstances beyond the underlying tort.” More specifically the court held that all of the following actions by Bennett could be considered as part of the reprehensibility analysis: (1) bribing a witness and urging him to lie, (2) threatening a non-party witness, even if the threats did not reach the plaintiff, (3) tampering with photographs, (4) bringing litigation against a witness for the plaintiff (the witness was a former ranch hand for Bennett), and (5) meddling with Reynolds’s cattle brand (efforts to cover up wrongdoing).

The court did not think, however, that the reprehensibility of Bennett’s conduct alone justified a double or triple digit ratio of exemplary to actual damages. “[T]his other malfeasance, however related, does not transform this conversion claim into one that warrants a double- or triple- digit ratio.” The court said that even a ratio of 4 to 1 seemed a stretch in the case before it because there would be “no room [left] for greater punishment in cases involving death, grievous physical injury, financial ruin, or actions that endanger a large segment of the public.”

In addressing the second element of the Gore framework, the ratio between exemplary and compensatory damages, the court discussed one of its own prior decisions in which it had held that an award of 4.33 times actual damages was constitutionally excessive where only one of the five reprehensibility factors favored exemplary damages. The court concluded that the facts in the case before it were similar to those in its prior decision and to those in Gore but were distinguishable from the facts in two cases in which the Fifth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld triple digit exemplary-to-actual damage ratios. “In sum, Bennett’s wrongdoing is blameworthy enough to warrant exemplary damages, but under federal law ‘a more modest punishment for this reprehensible conduct could have satisfied the State’s legitimate objectives.’”

The court did not fully analyze the third element of the Gore framework, legislative penalties for similar misconduct, because it concluded that the first two Gore elements rendered the award in the case before it unconstitutionally excessive.

In summary, the court held that only one of the Gore reprehensibility factors was satisfied, the actual damages awarded were not nominal, there was no “particularly egregious act,” and, therefore, a double- or triple-digit exemplary damage award would be unconstitutionally excessive.