Guest Commentary

R. Ben Sperry, Washington Legal Foundation Fellow & law student, George Mason University School of Law

A principled civil justice system allows plaintiffs to seek redress for actual harms.  However, this does not mean courts have free rein to impose punitive damages upon defendants in an arbitrary manner.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized and defined this principle in a series of rulings.  Many State Supreme Courts have been reluctant in applying it, though. For instance, in State Farm v. Campbell, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 145:1 ratio of punitive to compensatory damages the Utah courts imposed on State Farm was an unconstitutional violation of their Due Process rights.  The decision suggested that an “application of the [relevant] guideposts to the facts of this case… likely would justify a punitive damages award at or near the amount of compensatory damages.”  The Utah Supreme Court seemingly thumbed its nose at this decision, though, choosing to impose a punitive award nine times greater than the compensatory damages. 

Thus, we must applaud the Oregon Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Schwarz v. Philip Morris because the justices firmly protected the rights of a defendant which is regularly vilified in the public and even in some courts.