|Dissent ||Concurrence ||Concurrence ||Opinion ||Syllabus |
PACIFIC MUTUAL LIFE INSURANCE CO. v. HASLIP, et al.
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
Justice Blackmun delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case is yet another that presents a challenge to a punitive damages award.
In 1981, Lemmie L. Ruffin, Jr., was an Alabama-licensed agent for petitioner Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company. He also was a licensed agent for Union Fidelity Life Insurance Company. Pacific Mutual and Union are distinct and nonaffiliated entities. Union wrote group health insurance for municipalities. Pacific Mutual did not.
Respondents Cleopatra Haslip, Cynthia Craig, Alma M. Calhoun, and Eddie Hargrove were employees of Roosevelt City, an Alabama municipality. Ruffin, presenting himself as an agent of Pacific Mutual, solicited the city for both health and life insurance for its employees. The city was interested. Ruffin gave the city a single proposal for both coverages. The city approved and, in August 1981, Ruffin prepared separate applications for the city and its employees for group health with Union and for individual life policies with Pacific Mutual. This packaging of health insurance with life insurance, although from different and unrelated insurers, was not unusual. Indeed, it tended to boost life insurance sales by minimizing the loss of customers who wished to have both health and life protection. The initial premium payments were taken by Ruffin and submitted to the insurers with the applications. Thus far, nothing is claimed to have been out of line. Respondents were among those with the health coverage.
An arrangement was made for Union to send its billings for health premiums to Ruffin at Pacific Mutual's Birmingham office. Premium payments were to be effected through payroll deductions. The city clerk each month issued a check for those premiums. The check was sent to Ruffin or picked up by him. He, however, did not remit to Union the premium payments received from the city; instead, he misappropriated most of them. In late 1981, when Union did not receive payment, it sent notices of lapsed health coverage to respondents in care of Ruffin and Patrick Lupia, Pacific Mutual's agent-in-charge of its Birmingham office. Those notices were not forwarded to respondents. Although there is some evidence to the contrary, see Reply Brief for Petitioner B1-B4, the trial court found, App. to Pet. for Cert. A2, that respondents did not know that their health policies had been canceled.
Respondent Haslip was hospitalized on January 23, 1982. She incurred hospital and physician's charges. Because the hospital could not confirm health coverage, it required Haslip, upon her discharge, to make a payment upon her bill. Her physician, when he was not paid, placed her account with a collection agency. The agency obtained a judgment against Haslip and her credit was adversely affected.
In May 1982, respondents filed this suit, naming as de fendants Pacific Mutual (but not Union) and Ruffin, individually and as a proprietorship, in the Circuit Court for Jef ferson County, Ala. It was alleged that Ruffin collected premiums but failed to remit them to the insurers so that respondents' respective health insurance policies lapsed without their knowledge. Damages for fraud were claimed. The case against Pacific Mutual was submitted to the jury under a theory of respondeat superior.
Following the trial court's charge on liability, the jury was instructed that if it determined there was liability for fraud, it could award punitive damages. That part of the instructions is set forth in the margin. [n.1] Pacific Mutual made no objection on the ground of lack of specificity in the instructions and it did not propose a more particularized charge. No evidence was introduced as to Pacific Mutual's financial worth. The jury returned general verdicts for respondents against Pacific Mutual and Ruffin in the following amounts:
|Haslip:$1,040,000 [n.2]||Calhoun: 15,290||Craig: 12,400||Hargrove: 10,288|
Judgments were entered accordingly.
On Pacific Mutual's appeal, the Supreme Court of Alabama, by a divided vote, affirmed. 553 So.2d 537 (1989). In addition to issues not now before us, the court ruled that, while punitive damages are not recoverable in Alabama for misrepresentation made innocently or by mistake, they are recoverable for deceit or willful fraud, and that, on the evidence in this case, a jury could not have concluded that Ruffin's misrepresentations were made either innocently or mistakenly. Id., at 540. The majority then specifically upheld the punitive damages award. Id., at 543.
One Justice concurred in the result without opinion. [n.3] Ibid. Two Justices dissented in part on the ground that the award of punitive damages violated Pacific Mutual's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Id., at 544-545.
Pacific Mutual, but not Ruffin, then brought the case here. It challenged punitive damages in Alabama as the product of unbridled jury discretion and as violative of its due process rights. We stayed enforcement of the Haslip judgment, 493 U.S. 1014 (1990), and then granted certiorari, 494 U.S. 1065 (1990), to review the punitive damages procedures and award in the light of the long-enduring debate about their propriety. [n.4]
This Court and individual Justices thereof on a number of occasions in recent years have expressed doubts about the constitutionality of certain punitive damages awards.
In Browning-Ferris Industries of Vermont, Inc. v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U.S. 257 (1989), all nine participating Members of the Court noted concern. In that case, punitive damages awarded on a state law claim were challenged under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and on federal common law grounds. The majority held that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment did not apply to a punitive damages award in a civil case between private parties; that the claim of excessiveness under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment had not been raised in either the District Court or the Court of Appeals, and therefore was not to be considered here; and that federal common law did not provide a basis for disturbing the jury's punitive damages award. The Court said:
"The parties agree that due process imposes some limits on jury awards of punitive damages, and it is not disputed that a jury award may not be upheld if it was the product of bias or passion, or if it was reached in proceedings lacking the basic elements of fundamental fairness. But petitioners make no claim that the proceedings themselves were unfair, or that the jury was biased or blinded by emotion or prejudice. Instead, they seek further due process protections, addressed directly to the size of the damages award. There is some authority in our opinions for the view that the Due Process Clause places outer limits on the size of a civil damages award made pursuant to a statutory scheme . . . but we have never addressed the precise question presented here: whether due process acts as a check on undue jury discretion to award punitive damages in the absence of any express statutory limit. . . . That inquiry must await another day." Id., at 276-277.
Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall, wrote separately:
"I join the Court's opinion on the understanding that it leaves the door open for a holding that the Due Process Clause constrains the imposition of punitive damages in civil cases brought by private parties. . . .
. . . . .
"Without statutory (or at least common law) standards for the determination of how large an award of punitive damages is appropriate in a given case, juries are left largely to themselves in making this important, and potentially devastating, decision. . . .
. . . . .
"Since the Court correctly concludes that Browning-Ferris' challenge based on the Due Process Clause is not properly before us, however, I leave fuller discussion of these matters for another day." Id., at 280-282.
Justice O'Connor, joined by Justice Stevens, concurring in part and dissenting in part, observed:
"Awards of punitive damages are skyrocketing. . . .
. . . . .
". . . I do . . . agree with the Court that no due process claims — either procedural or substantive — are properly presented in this case, and that the award of punitive damages here should not be overturned as a matter of federal common law. . . . Moreover, I share Justice Brennan's view, ante, at 280-282, that nothing in the Court's opinion forecloses a due process challenge to awards of punitive damages or the method by which they are imposed. . . ." Id., at 282-283.
In Bankers Life & Casualty Co. v. Crenshaw, 486 U.S. 71 (1988), a challenge to a punitive damages award was made. The Court, however, refused to reach claims that the award violated the Due Process Clause and other provisions of the Federal Constitution, since those claims had not been raised and passed upon in state court. Id., at 76-80. Justice O'Connor, joined by Justice Scalia, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, said:
"Appellant has touched on a due process issue that I think is worthy of the Court's attention in an appropriate case. Mississippi law gives juries discretion to award any amount of punitive damages in any tort case in which a defendant acts with a certain mental state. In my view, because of the punitive character of such awards, there is reason to think that this may violate the Due Process Clause.
. . . . .
"This due process question, serious as it is, should not be decided today. . . . I concur in the Court's judgment on this question, and would leave for another day the consideration of these issues." Id. at 87-89.
In Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Lavoie, 475 U.S. 813 (1986), another case that came here from the Supreme Court of Alabama, the appellant argued that the imposition of punitive damages was impermissible under the Eighth Amendment and violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court stated: "These arguments raise important issues which, in an appropriate setting, must be resolved; however, our disposition of the recusal-for-bias issue makes it unnecessary to reach them." Id., at 828-829.
See also Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 270-271 (1981) ("The impact of such a windfall recovery is likely to be both unpredictable and, at times, substantial. . . ."); Electrical Workers v. Foust, 442 U.S. 42, 50-51 (1979); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 350 (1974) ("In most jurisdictions, jury discretion over the amounts awarded is limited only by the gentle rule that they not be excessive. Consequently, juries assess punitive damages in wholly unpredictable amounts bearing no necessary relation to the actual harm caused."); Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., 403 U.S. 29, 82-84 (1971) (Marshall, J., joined by Stewart, J., dissenting); Missouri Pacific R. Co. v. Tucker, 230 U.S. 340, 351 (1913); Southwestern Telegraph & Telephone Co. v. Danaher, 238 U.S. 482, 491 (1915); St. Louis, I.M. & S.R. Co. v. Williams, 251 U.S. 63, 67 (1919).
The constitutional status of punitive damages, therefore, is not an issue that is new to this Court or unanticipated by it. Challenges have been raised before; for stated reasons, they have been rejected or deferred. For example, in Browning-Ferris, supra, we rejected the claim that punitive damages awarded in a civil case could violate the Eighth Amendment, and refused to consider the tardily raised due process argument. But the Fourteenth Amendment due process challenge is here once again.
Two preliminary and overlapping due process arguments raised by Pacific Mutual deserve attention before we reach the principal issue in controversy. Did Ruffin act within the scope of his apparent authority as an agent of Pacific Mutual? If so, may Pacific Mutual be held responsible for Ruffin's fraud on a theory of respondeat superior?
Pacific Mutual was held responsible for the acts of Ruffin. The insurer mounts a challenge to this result on substantive due process grounds, arguing that it was not shown that either it or its Birmingham manager was aware that Ruffin was collecting premiums contrary to his contract; that Pacific Mutual had no notice of the actions complained of prior to the filing of the complaint in this litigation; that it did not authorize or ratify Ruffin's conduct; that his contract with the company forbade his collecting any premium other than the initial one submitted with an application; and that Pacific Mutual was held liable and punished for unauthorized actions of its agent for acts performed on behalf of another company. Thus, it is said, when punitive damages were imposed on Pacific Mutual, the focus for determining the amount of those damages shifted from Ruffin, where it belonged, to Pacific Mutual, and obviously and unfairly contributed to the amount of the punitive damages and their disproportionality. Ruffin was acting not to benefit Pacific Mutual, but for his own benefit, and to hold Pacific Mutual liable is "beyond the point of fundamental fairness," Brief for Petitioner 29, embodied in due process, id., at 32. It is said that the burden of the liability comes to rest on Pacific Mutual's other policyholders.
The jury found that Ruffin was acting as an employee of Pacific Mutual when he defrauded respondents. The Supreme Court of Alabama did not disturb that finding. There is no occasion for us to question it, for it is amply supported by the record. Ruffin had actual authority to sell Pacific Mutual life insurance to respondents. The insurer derived economic benefit from those life insurance sales. Ruffin's defalcations related to the life premiums as well as to the health premiums. Thus, Pacific Mutual cannot plausibly claim that Ruffin was acting wholly as an agent of Union when he defrauded respondents.
The details of Ruffin's representation admit of no other conclusion. He gave respondents a single proposal — not multiple ones — for both life and health insurance. He used Pacific Mutual letterhead, which he was authorized to use on Pacific Mutual business. There was, however, no indication that Union was a nonaffiliated company. The trial court found that Ruffin "spoke only of Pacific Mutual and indicated that Union Fidelity was a subsidiary of Pacific Mutual." App. to Pet. for Cert. A2. Pacific Mutual encouraged the packaging of life and health insurance. Ruffin worked exclusively out of a Pacific Mutual branch office. Each month he presented to the city clerk a single invoice on Pacific Mutual letterhead for both life and health premiums.
Before the frauds in this case were effectuated, Pacific Mutual had received notice that its agent Ruffin was engaged in a pattern of fraud identical to those perpetrated against respondents. There were complaints to the Birmingham office about the absence of coverage purchased through Ruffin. The Birmingham manager was also advised of Ruffin's receipt of non-initial premiums made payable to him, a practice in violation of company policy.
Alabama's common law rule is that a corporation is liable for both compensatory and punitive damages for fraud of its employee effected within the scope of his employment. We cannot say that this does not rationally advance the State's interest in minimizing fraud. Alabama long has applied this rule in the insurance context, for it has determined that an insurer is more likely to prevent an agent's fraud if given sufficient financial incentive to do so. See British General Ins. Co. v. Simpson Sales Co., 265 Ala. 683, 93 So.2d 763, 768 (1957).
Imposing exemplary damages on the corporation when its agent commits intentional fraud creates a strong incentive for vigilance by those in a position "to guard substantially against the evil to be prevented." Louis Pizitz Dry Goods Co. v. Yeldell, 274 U.S. 112 (1927). If an insurer were liable for such damages only upon proof that it was at fault independently, it would have an incentive to minimize oversight of its agents. Imposing liability without independent fault deters fraud more than a less stringent rule. It therefore rationally advances the State's goal. We cannot say this is a violation of Fourteenth Amendment due process. See American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Inc. v. Hydrolevel Corp., 456 U.S. 556 (1982); Pizitz, 274 U.S., at 115. These and other cases in a broad range of civil and criminal contexts make clear that imposing such liability is not fundamentally unfair and does not in itself violate the Due Process Clause. See Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. Minnesota, 218 U.S. 57 (1910); United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 252 (1922); United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658, 670 (1975).
We therefore readily conclude that Ruffin was acting as an employee of Pacific Mutual when he defrauded respondents, and that imposing liability upon Pacific Mutual for Ruffin's fraud under the doctrine of respondeat superior does not, on the facts here, violate Pacific Mutual's due process rights.
"Punitive damages have long been a part of traditional state tort law." Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238, 255 (1984). Blackstone appears to have noted their use. 3 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *137-*138. See also Wilkes v. Wood, 98 Eng. Rep. 489 (C. P. 1763) (The Lord Chief Justice validating exemplary damages as compensation, punishment, and deterrence). Among the first reported American cases are Genay v. Norris, 1 S. C. L. (1 Bay) 6 (1784), and Coryell v. Colbaugh, 1 N. J. L. 77 (1791). [n.5]
Under the traditional common law approach, the amount of the punitive award is initially determined by a jury instructed to consider the gravity of the wrong and the need to deter similar wrongful conduct. The jury's determination is then reviewed by trial and appellate courts to ensure that it is reasonable.
This Court more than once has approved the common law method for assessing punitive awards. In Day v. Woodworth, 13 How. 363 (1852), a case decided before the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, Justice Grier, writing for a unanimous Court, observed:
"It is a well established principle of the common law that, in actions of trespass and all actions on the case for torts, a jury may inflict what are called exemplary, punitive, or vindictive damages upon a defendant, having in view the enormity of his offence rather than the measure of compensation to the plaintiff. We are aware that the propriety of this doctrine has been questioned by some writers; but if repeated judicial decisions for more than a century are to be received as the best exposition of what the law is, the question will not admit of argument. By the common as well as by statute law, men are often punished for aggravated misconduct or lawless acts by means of a civil action, and the damages, inflicted by way of penalty or punishment, given to the party injured.
". . . This has been always left to the discretion of the jury, as the degree of punishment to be thus inflicted must depend on the peculiar circumstances of each case." Id., at 371.
In Missouri Pacific R. Co. v. Humes, 115 U.S. 512 (1885), the Court stated: "The discretion of the jury in such cases is not controlled by any very definite rules; yet the wisdom of allowing such additional damages to be given is attested by the long continuance of the practice." Id., at 521. See also Barry v. Edmunds, 116 U.S. 550, 565 (1886) ("For nothing is better settled than that, in such cases as the present, and other actions for torts where no precise rule of law fixes the recoverable damages, it is the peculiar function of the jury to determine the amount by their verdict."); Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Beckwith, 129 U.S. 26, 36 (1889) ("The imposition of punitive or exemplary damages in such cases cannot be opposed as in conflict with the prohibition against the deprivation of property without due process of law. It is only one mode of imposing a penalty for the violation of duty, and its propriety and legality have been recognized . . . by repeated judicial decisions for more than a century. Its authorization by the law in question . . . cannot therefore be justly assailed as infringing upon the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States."); Standard Oil Co. v. Missouri, 224 U.S. 270, 285 (1912) ("Nor, from a Federal standpoint, is there any invalidity in the judgment because there was no statute fixing a maximum penalty, no rule for measuring damages, and no hearing."); Louis Pizitz Dry Goods Co. v. Yeldell, 274 U.S. 112 (1927) (although the issue was raised in the briefs, the Court did not discuss the claim); Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 306, n. 9 (1986). Recently, in Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30 (1983), this Court affirmed the assessment of punitive damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983, where the trial court used the common law method for determining the amount of the award. [n.6]
So far as we have been able to determine, every state and federal court that has considered the question has ruled that the common law method for assessing punitive damages does not in itself violate due process. But see New Orleans, J. & G.N.R. Co. v. Hurst, 36 Miss. 660 (1859). In view of this consistent history, we cannot say that the common law method for assessing punitive damages is so inherently unfair as to deny due process and be per se unconstitutional. "`If a thing has been practised for two hundred years by common consent, it will need a strong case for the Fourteenth Amendment to affect it.'" Sun Oil Co. v. Wortman, 486 U.S. 717, 730 (1988), quoting Jackman v. Rosenbaum Co., 260 U.S. 22, 31 (1922). As the Court in Day v. Woodworth made clear, the common law method for assessing punitive damages was well established before the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted. Nothing in that Amendment's text or history indicates an intention on the part of its drafters to overturn the prevailing method. See Burnham v. Superior Court of Cal., County of Marin, 495 U.S. 604 (1990); Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 111 (1934) ("The Fourteenth Amendment has not displaced the procedure of the ages."). [n.7]
This, however, is not the end of the matter. It would be just as inappropriate to say that, because punitive damages have been recognized for so long, their imposition is never unconstitutional. See Williams v. Illinois, 399 U.S. 235, 239 (1970) ("[N]either the antiquity of a practice nor the fact of steadfast legislative and judicial adherence to it through the centuries insulates it from constitutional attack. . . ."). We note once again our concern about punitive damages that "run wild." Having said that, we conclude that our task today is to determine whether the Due Process Clause renders the punitive damages award in this case constitutionally unacceptable.
One must concede that unlimited jury discretion — or unlimited judicial discretion for that matter — in the fixing of punitive damages may invite extreme results that jar one's constitutional sensibilities. See Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas (No. 1), 212 U.S. 86, 111 (1909). [n.8]We need not, and indeed we cannot, draw a mathematical bright line between the constitutionally acceptable and the constitutionally unacceptable that would fit every case. We can say, however, that general concerns of reasonableness and adequate guidance from the court when the case is tried to a jury properly enter into the constitutional calculus. With these concerns in mind, we review the constitutionality of the punitive damages awarded in this case.
We conclude that the punitive damages assessed by the jury against Pacific Mutual were not violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It is true, of course, that under Alabama law, as under the law of most States, punitive damages are imposed for purposes of retribution and deterrence. Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Lavoie, 470 So.2d 1060, 1076 (Ala. 1984). They have been described as quasi-criminal. See Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 59 (1983) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting). But this in itself does not provide the answer. We move, then, to the points of specific attack.
1. We have carefully reviewed the instructions to the jury. By these instructions, see n. 1, supra, the trial court expressly described for the jury the purpose of punitive damages, namely, "not to compensate the plaintiff for any injury" but "to punish the defendant" and "for the added purpose of protecting the public by [deterring] the defendant and others from doing such wrong in the future." App. 105-106. Any evidence of Pacific Mutual's wealth was excluded from the trial in accord with Alabama law. See Southern Life & Health Ins. Co. v. Whitman, 358 So.2d 1025, 1026-1027 (Ala. 1978).
To be sure, the instructions gave the jury significant discretion in its determination of punitive damages. But that discretion was not unlimited. It was confined to deterrence and retribution, the state policy concerns sought to be advanced. And if punitive damages were to be awarded, the jury "must take into consideration the character and the degree of the wrong as shown by the evidence and necessity of preventing similar wrong." App. 106. The instructions thus enlightened the jury as to the punitive damages' nature and purpose, identified the damages as punishment for civil wrongdoing of the kind involved, and explained that their imposition was not compulsory.
These instructions, we believe, reasonably accommodated Pacific Mutual's interest in rational decisionmaking and Alabama's interest in meaningful individualized assessment of appropriate deterrence and retribution. The discretion allowed under Alabama law in determining punitive damages is no greater than that pursued in many familiar areas of the law as, for example, deciding "the best interests of the child," or "reasonable care," or "due diligence," or appropriate compensation for pain and suffering or mental anguish. [n.9] As long as the discretion is exercised within reasonable constraints, due process is satisfied. See, e.g., Schall v. Martin, 467 U.S. 253, 279 (1984); Greenholtz v. Nebraska Penal Inmates, 442 U.S. 1, 16 (1977). See also McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 207 (1971).
2. Before the trial in this case took place, the Supreme Court of Alabama had established post-trial procedures for scrutinizing punitive awards. In Hammond v. City of Gadsden, 493 So.2d 1374 (1986), it stated that trial courts are "to reflect in the record the reasons for interfering with a jury verdict, or refusing to do so, on grounds of excessiveness of the damages." Id., at 1379. Among the factors deemed "appropriate for the trial court's consideration" are the "culpability of the defendant's conduct," the "desirability of discouraging others from similar conduct," the "impact upon the parties," and "other factors, such as the impact on innocent third parties." Ibid. The Hammond test ensures meaningful and adequate review by the trial court whenever a jury has fixed the punitive damages.
3. By its review of punitive awards, the Alabama Supreme Court provides an additional check on the jury's or trial court's discretion. It first undertakes a comparative analysis. See, e.g., Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Lavoie, 505 So.2d 1050, 1053 (1987). It then applies the detailed substantive standards it has developed for evaluating punitive awards. [n.10] In particular, it makes its review to ensure that the award does "not exceed an amount that will accomplish society's goals of punishment and deterrence." Green Oil Co. v. Hornsby, 539 So.2d 218, 222 (1989); Wilson v. Dukona Corp., 547 So.2d 70, 73 (1989). This appellate review makes certain that the punitive damages are reasonable in their amount and rational in light of their purpose to punish what has occurred and to deter its repetition.
Also before its ruling in the present case, the Supreme Court of Alabama had elaborated and refined the Hammond criteria for determining whether a punitive award is reasonably related to the goals of deterrence and retribution. Hornsby, 539 So.2d, at 223-224; Central Alabama, 546 So.2d, at 376-377. It was announced that the following could be taken into consideration in determining whether the award was excessive or inadequate: (a) whether there is a reasonable relationship between the punitive damages award and the harm likely to result from the defendant's conduct as well as the harm that actually has occurred; (b) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct, the duration of that conduct, the defendant's awareness, any concealment, and the existence and frequency of similar past conduct; (c) the profitability to the defendant of the wrongful conduct and the desirability of removing that profit and of having the defendant also sustain a loss; (d) the "financial position" of the defendant; (e) all the costs of litigation; (f) the imposition of criminal sanctions on the defendant for its conduct, these to be taken in mitigation; and (g) the existence of other civil awards against the defendant for the same conduct, these also to be taken in mitigation.
The application of these standards, we conclude, imposes a sufficiently definite and meaningful constraint on the discretion of Alabama fact finders in awarding punitive damages. The Alabama Supreme Court's post-verdict review ensures that punitive damages awards are not grossly out of proportion to the severity of the offense and have some understandable relationship to compensatory damages. While punitive damages in Alabama may embrace such factors as the heinousness of the civil wrong, its effect upon the victim, the likelihood of its recurrence, and the extent of defendant's wrongful gain, the factfinder must be guided by more than the defendant's net worth. Alabama plaintiffs do not enjoy a windfall because they have the good fortune to have a defendant with a deep pocket.
These standards have real effect when applied by the Alabama Supreme Court to jury awards. For examples of their application in trial practice, see Hornsby, 539 So.2d, at 219, and Williams v. Ralph Collins Ford-Chrysler, Inc., 551 So.2d 964, 966 (1989). And post-verdict review by the Alabama Supreme Court has resulted in reduction of punitive awards. See, e.g., Wilson v. Dukona Corp., 547 So.2d 70, 74 (1989); United Services Automobile Assn. v. Wade, 544 So.2d 906, 917 (1989). The standards provide for a rational relationship in determining whether a particular award is greater than reasonably necessary to punish and deter. They surely are as specific as those adopted legislatively in Ohio Rev. Code Ann. 2307.80(B) (Supp. 1989) and in Mont. Code Ann. 27-1-221 (1989). [n.11]
Pacific Mutual thus had the benefit of the full panoply of Alabama's procedural protections. The jury was adequately instructed. The trial court conducted a post-verdict hearing that conformed with Hammond. The trial court specifically found the conduct in question "evidenced intentional malicious, gross, or oppressive fraud," App. to Pet. for Cert. A14, and found the amount of the award to be reasonable in light of the importance of discouraging insurers from similar conduct, id., at A15. Pacific Mutual also received the benefit of appropriate review by the Supreme Court of Alabama. It applied the Hammond standards and approved the verdict thereunder. It brought to bear all relevant factors recited in Hornsby.
We are aware that the punitive damages award in this case is more than 4 times the amount of compensatory damages, is more than 200 times the out-of-pocket expenses of respondent Haslip, see n. 2, supra, and, of course, is much in excess of the fine that could be imposed for insurance fraud under Ala. Code 13A-511 and 13A-5-12(a) (1982), and 27-1-12, 27-12-17, and 27-12-23 (1986). Imprisonment, however, could also be required of an individual in the criminal context. While the monetary comparisons are wide and, indeed, may be close to the line, the award here did not lack objective criteria. We conclude, after careful consideration, that in this case it does not cross the line into the area of constitutional impropriety. [n.12] Accordingly, Pacific Mutual's due process challenge must be, ad is, rejected.
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
Justice Souter took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
1 "Now, if you find that fraud was perpetrated then in addition to compensatory damages you may in your discretion, when I use the word discretion, I say you don't have to even find fraud, you wouldn't have to, but you may, the law says you may award an amount of money known as punitive damages.
"This amount of money is awarded to the plaintiff but it is not to compensate the plaintiff for any injury. It is to punish the defendant. Punitive means to punish or it is also called exemplary damages, which means to make an example. So, if you feel or not feel, but if you are reasonably satisfied from the evidence that the plaintiff, whatever plaintiff you are talking about, has had a fraud perpetrated upon them and as a direct result they were injured and in addition to compensatory damages you may in your discretion award punitive damages.
"Now, the purpose of awarding punitive or exemplary damages is to allow money recovery to the plaintiffs, it does to the plaintiff, by way of punishment to the defendant and for the added purpose of protecting the public by detering [sic] the defendant and others from doing such wrong in the future. Imposition of punitive damages is entirely discretionary with the jury, that means you don't have to award it unless this jury feels that you should do so.
"Should you award punitive damages, in fixing the amount, you must take into consideration the character and the degree of the wrong as shown by the evidence and necessity of preventing similar wrong." App. 105-106.
2 Although there is controversy about the matter, it is probable that the general verdict for respondent Haslip contained a punitive damages component of not less than $840,000. In Haslip's counsel's argument to the jury, compensatory damages of $200,000 (including out-of-pocket expenditures of less than $4,000) and punitive damages of $3,000,000 were requested. Tr. 810-814. For present purposes, we accept this description of the verdict.
3 This Justice, in a later case, appears to have rethought his position with respect to punitive damages under Alabama law. See Charter Hospital of Mobile, Inc. v. Weinberg, 558 So.2d 909, 913 (1990) (Houston, J., concurring specially). He did not address the question of the constitutionality of punitive damages in Alabama under the United States Constitution. Id., at 914.
4 Compare, e.g., Fay v. Parker, 53 N.H. 342, 382 (1873) ("The idea is wrong. It is a monstrous heresy. It is an unsightly and an unhealthy excrescence, deforming the symmetry of the body of the law."), with Luther v. Shaw, 157 Wis. 234, 238, 147 N.W. 18, 19-20 (1914) (Timlin, J., "Speaking for myself only in this paragraph. . . . The law giving exemplary damages is an outgrowth of the English love of liberty regulated by law. It tends to elevate the jury as a responsible instrument of government, discourage private reprisals, restrains the strong, influential, and unscrupulous, vindicates the right of the weak, and encourages recourse to and confidence in the courts of law by those wronged or oppressed by acts or practices not cognizable in or not sufficiently punished by the criminal law.").
This debate finds replication in the manyamicus briefs filed here. See, e.g., Brief for Alliance of American Insurers et al. 5 ("The Due Process Clause imposes substantive limits on the amounts of punitive damages that civil juries can award. This conclusion is evident from history."); Brief for American Institute of Architects et al. 4 ("Punitive damages are today awarded with a frequency and in amounts that are startling. . . . This system of punitive damages — where punitive awards are routine and fantastic verdicts receive little attention — is entirely a product of the last 20 years."); Brief for Business Roundtable et al. 2 ("[A]n award that is not rationally related to the retributive and deterrent purposes of punitive damages is unconstitutionally excessive."); Brief for Defense Research Institute 2 ("No society concerned for fairness and regularity in the administration of justice can afford to tolerate an essentially lawless regime of punishment."); Brief for Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association et al. 4 ("[A]ny award of punitive damages for lawful conduct approved in advance by the [Food and Drug Administration] must be deemed arbitrary and excessive."); Brief for Aetna Life Insurance Company et al. 6 ("[A] State may impose punishment on its citizens only pursuant to standards established in advance."); Brief for Hospital Authority of Gwinnett County, Georgia, 2 ("[I]n the absence of a statute . . . an award of punitive damages . . . violates the defendant's right to due process . . . unless it is shown by clear and convincing evidence that the act constituted a crime. . . . [A]wards of punitive damages in excess of twice the amount of actual damages (that is, awards in excess of treble damages) . . . violate . . . due process. . . . "); Brief for Mid-America Legal Foundation 8 ("[S]ystem as applied today merely introduces a wildcard into the legal process . . . ."); Brief for Association for California Tort Reform 2 ("Until state legislatures do their job and set maximum limits for punitive awards and establish meaningful criteria for juries to use, punitive damages are per se a violation of due process."); Brief for Association of Trial Lawyers of America 3 ("There is no `explosion'. . . . [P]unitive damages neither deter innovation nor place American businesses at a competitive disadvantage. . . . "); Brief for National Insurance Consumer Organization 3 ("Punitive damages have developed as the most effective means by which the states can protect their citizens against corporate misconduct."); Brief for Attorney Generals of Alabama et al. ("[T]he States — and not this Court — should decide how and when punitive damages may be assessed in civil cases between private litigants.").
5 For informative historical comment, see Owen, Punitive Damages in Products Liability Litigation, 74 Mich. L. Rev. 1257, 1262-1264, and nn. 17-23 (1976).
6 Congress by statute in a number of instances has provided for punitive damages. See, e.g., 11 U.S.C. 303(i)(2)(B), 362(h), and 363(n); 12 U.S.C. 3417(a)(3); 15 U.S.C. 78u(h)(7)(A)(iii), 298(c) 1116(d)(11), and 168m(2); 26 U.S.C. 7431(c)(1)(B)(ii); 33 U.S.C. 1514(c).
7 See RAND Institute for Civil Justice, M. Peterson, S. Sarma, & M. Shanley, Punitive Damages — Empirical Findings (Rand R3311-ICJ 1987).
8 See also Owen, The Moral Foundations of Punitive Damages, 40 Ala.L.Rev. 705, 739 (1989) ("Yet punitive damages are a powerful remedy which itself may be abused, causing serious damage to public and private interests and moral values.").
9 The Alabama Legislature recently enacted a statute that places a $250,000 limit on punitive damages in most cases. See 1987 Ala.Acts, No. 87-185, 1, 2, and 4. The legislation, however, became effective only on June 11, 1987, see 12, after the cause of action in the present case arose and the complaint was filed.
10 See Central Alabama Electric Cooperative v. Tapley, 546 So.2d 371, 377-378 (Ala. 1989). This, we feel, distinguishes Alabama's system from the Vermont and Mississippi schemes about which Justices expressed concern in Browning-Ferris Industries of Vermont, Inc. v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U.S. 257 (1989), and in Bankers Life & Casualty Co. v. Crenshaw, 486 U.S. 71 (1988). In those respective schemes, an amount awarded would be set aside or modified only if it was "manifestly and grossly excessive," Pezzano v. Bonneau, 133 Vt. 88, 91, 329 A.2d 659, 661 (1974), or would be considered excessive when "it evinces passion, bias and prejudice on the part of the jury so as to shock the conscience," Bankers Life & Casualty Co. v. Crenshaw, 483 So.2d 254, 278 (Miss. 1985).
11 We have considered the arguments raised by Pacific Mutual and some of its amici as to the constitutional necessity of imposing a standard of proof of punitive damages higher than "preponderance of the evidence." There is much to be said in favor of a State's requiring, as many do, see, e.g., Ohio Rev. Code Ann. 2307.80 (1989), a standard of "clear and convincing evidence" or, even, "beyond a reasonable doubt," see Colo. Rev. Stat. 13-25-127(2) (Supp. 1979), as in the criminal context. We are not persuaded, however, that the Due Process Clause requires that much. We feel that the lesser standard prevailing in Alabama — "reasonably satisfied from the evidence" — when buttressed, as it is, by the procedural and substantive protections outlined above, is constitutionally sufficient.
12 Pacific Mutual also makes what it calls a void-for-vagueness argument and, in support thereof, cites Giaccio v. Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399 (1966). That case, however, is not helpful. The Court there struck down a Pennsylvania statute allowing costs to be awarded against a defendant acquitted of a misdemeanor. The statute did not concern jury discretion in fixing the amount of costs. Decisions about the appropriate consequences of violating a law are significantly different from decisions as to whether a violation has occurred.