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But, What Do I Think?

Now we all know, in some detail, what the United States Supreme Court said about punitive damages in State Farm v. Campbell.  So what?  Is it important to you and me?  Can anyone, with a straight face, seriously be upset that a jury verdict for punitive damages of $145 million was reduced to over $9 million?  — Some might argue that $9 million is a lot of money, more than the Campbells could possibly have needed, anyway.

I won’t argue that $9 million itself isn’t a lot of money.  Yes, $9 million is a LOT of money.  I’ve never had that kind of money sitting in a bank account.  I’m pretty sure I never will have that kind of money.  And $145 million?  $145,000,000.  I’m not even sure I understand what kind of money that is.

But, I do believe in the jury system.  The Utah jury heard the evidence and that’s what they said would deter State Farm.  In lawyer terms, let’s not “invade the province of the jury.”  In this — surprisingly — I find myself agreeing with Justices Scalia and Thomas who dissented.  What business does the Federal government have with modifying a jury’s decision that a national company has implemented a hideous and insidious plan to victimize those people it holds itself out to protect — and should be punished greatly to the tune of $145 million to deter it from keeping on the same path?

Secondly, and more importantly, Campbell hamstrings everyday consumers who are being taken advantage of by big businesses.  Where people are reduced to numbers, not faces with families and stories.  In this, I heartily agree with Justice Ginsberg.  Campbell essentially said that, even where a huge national company implements nationwide practices that screw people nationwide, evidence from across the nation is not admissible.  In Court, only evidence from the state in which the consumers actions arose is admissible.

Ginsberg didn’t understand how the majority could reject the practical implications of this: “The Court dismisses the evidence describing and documenting State Farm’s PP&R policy and practices as essentially irrelevant, bearing, ‘no relation to the Campbell’s harm.  It is hardly apparent why that should be so.  What is infirm about the Campbells’ theory that their experience with State Farm exemplifies and reflects an overarching, underpayment scheme, one that caused ‘repeated misconduct of the sort that injured them?  The Court’s silence on that score is revealing:  Once one recognizes that the Campbells did show ‘conduct by State Farm similar to that which harmed them,’ it becomes impossible to shrink the reprehensibility analysis to this sole case, or to maintain, at odds with the determination of the trial court, that ‘the adverse effect on the State’s general population was in fact minor.”

In Montana, there are even more implications.  Utah’s population is 2.9 million. Montana’s population is quite a bit less than that, at a little over one million.  It’s just plain harder to find people to testify about a nation-wide scheme in Montana than it is in more populated states.  Not to mention that Montana’s just one big small-town.  It seems everyone knows someone in common here.  Our ability to actually afford justice to those being preyed on by national companies got a lot harder with Campbell.

So.  No, I don’t like Campbell.  Maybe, someday, someone somewhere will ask the United States Supreme Court to address it again.

About the Author

Rebecca RutzRebecca “Becky” Henning-Rutz graduated from the University of Montana with her law degree in 2006 and has been working in Kalispell ever since. Becky has been working as an associate for Henning, Keedy & Lee since 2007.View all posts by Rebecca Rutz →

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