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129In addition to compensatory or nominal damages, you may consider awarding [plaintiff] punitive damages. A jury may award punitive damages to punish a defendant, or to deter the defendant and others like the defendant from committing such conduct in the future. [Where appropriate, the jury may award punitive damages even if the plaintiff suffered no actual injury and so receives nominal rather than compensatory damages.]
You may only award punitive damages if you find that [defendant] [a particular defendant] acted maliciously or wantonly in violating [plaintiff’s] federally protected rights. [In this case there are multiple defendants. You must make a separate determination whether each defendant acted maliciously or wantonly.]
• A violation is malicious if it was prompted by ill will or spite towards the plaintiff. A defendant is malicious when [he/she] consciously desires to violate federal rights of which [he/she] is aware, or when [he/she] consciously desires to injure the plaintiff in a manner [he/she] knows to be unlawful. A conscious desire to perform the physical acts that caused plaintiff's injury, or to fail to undertake certain acts, does not by itself establish that a defendant had a conscious desire to violate rights or injure plaintiff unlawfully.
• A violation is wanton if the person committing the violation recklessly or callously disregarded the plaintiff’s rights.
If you find that it is more likely than not130 that [defendant] [a particular defendant] acted maliciously or wantonly in violating [plaintiff’s] federal rights, then you may award punitive damages [against that defendant].131 However, an award of punitive damages is discretionary; that is, if you find that the legal requirements for punitive damages are satisfied, then you may decide to award punitive damages, or you may decide not to award them. I will now discuss some considerations that should guide your exercise of this discretion. But remember that you cannot award punitive damages unless you have found that [defendant] [the defendant in question] acted maliciously or wantonly in violating [plaintiff’s] federal rights.
If you have found that [defendant] [the defendant in question] acted maliciously or wantonly in violating [plaintiff’s] federal rights, then you should consider the purposes of punitive damages. The purposes of punitive damages are to punish a defendant for a malicious or wanton violation of the plaintiff’s federal rights, or to deter the defendant and others like the defendant from doing similar things in the future, or both. Thus, you may consider whether to award punitive damages to punish [defendant]. You should also consider whether actual damages standing alone are sufficient to deter or prevent [defendant] from again performing any wrongful acts [he/she] may have performed. Finally, you should consider whether an award of punitive damages in this case is likely to deter other persons from performing wrongful acts similar to those [defendant] may have committed.
If you decide to award punitive damages, then you should also consider the purposes of punitive damages in deciding the amount of punitive damages to award. That is, in deciding the amount of punitive damages, you should consider the degree to which [defendant] should be punished for [his/her] wrongful conduct toward [plaintiff], and the degree to which an award of one sum or another will deter [defendant] or others from committing similar wrongful acts in the future.
In considering the purposes of punishment and deterrence, you should consider the nature of the defendant’s action. For example, you are entitled to consider [include any of the following that are warranted by the evidence] [whether a defendant’s act was violent or non-violent; whether the defendant’s act posed a risk to health or safety; whether the defendant acted in a deliberately deceptive manner; and whether the defendant engaged in repeated misconduct, or a single act.] You should also consider the amount of harm actually caused by the defendant’s act, [as well as the harm the defendant’s act could have caused]132 and the harm that could result if such acts are not deterred in the future.
[Bear in mind that when considering whether to use punitive damages to punish [defendant], you should only punish [defendant] for harming [plaintiff], and not for harming people other than [plaintiff]. As I have mentioned, in considering whether to punish [defendant], you should consider the nature of [defendant]’s conduct – in other words, how blameworthy that conduct was. In some cases, evidence that a defendant’s conduct harmed other people in addition to the plaintiff can help to show that the defendant’s conduct posed a substantial risk of harm to the general public, and so was particularly blameworthy. But if you consider evidence of harm [defendant] caused to people other than [plaintiff], you must make sure to use that evidence only to help you decide how blameworthy the defendant’s conduct toward [plaintiff] was. Do not punish [defendant] for harming people other than [plaintiff].]133
[The extent to which a particular amount of money will adequately punish a defendant, and the extent to which a particular amount will adequately deter or prevent future misconduct, may depend upon the defendant’s financial resources. Therefore, if you find that punitive damages should be awarded against [defendant], you may consider the financial resources of [defendant] in fixing the amount of such damages.]
COMMENT Punitive damages are not available against municipalities. See City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 271 (1981).
“The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant for his willful or malicious conduct and to deter others from similar behavior.” Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 306 n.9 (1986). “A jury may be permitted to assess punitive damages in an action under § 1983 when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.” Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56 (1983).134 “While the Smith Court determined that it was unnecessary to show actual malice to qualify for a punitive award... , its intent standard, at a minimum, required recklessness in its subjective form. The Court referred to a ‘subjective consciousness’ of a risk of injury or illegality and a ‘“criminal indifference to civil obligations.”’” Kolstad v. American Dental Ass'n, 527 U.S. 526, 536 (1999) (discussing Smith in the context of a Title VII case).135
The Supreme Court has imposed some due process limits on both the size of punitive damages awards and the process by which those awards are determined and reviewed.136 In performing the substantive due process review of the size of punitive awards, a court must consider three factors: “the degree of reprehensibility of” the defendant’s conduct; “the disparity between the harm or potential harm suffered by” the plaintiff and the punitive award; and the difference between the punitive award “and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.” BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 575 (1996). The Supreme Court’s due process precedents have a dual relevance in Section 1983 cases. First, those precedents presumably govern a court’s review of punitive damages awards in Section 1983 cases; there is no reason to think that a different constitutional standard applies to Section 1983 cases137 (though the Gore factors may well apply differently in such cases than they do in cases under state tort law). Second, the concerns elaborated by the Court in the due process cases may also provide some guidance concerning the Court’s likely views on the substantive standards that should guide juries in Section 1983 cases. Though the Court has not held that juries hearing state-law tort claims must be instructed to consider the Gore factors, it is possible that the Court might in the future approve the use of analogous considerations in instructing juries in Section 1983 cases.
The Court’s due process decisions, of course, concern the outer limits placed on punitive awards by the Constitution. It is also possible that the Court may in future cases develop subconstitutional principles of federal law that further constrain punitive awards in Section 1983 cases. An example of the application of such principles in a different area of substantive federal law is provided by Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 128 S. Ct. 2605 (2008). In Exxon, the plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages from Exxon Mobil Corp. and its subsidiary arising from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The jury awarded $ 5 billion in punitive damages against Exxon. See id. at 2614. The court of appeals remitted the punitive award to $ 2.5 billion. See id. A divided Supreme Court ordered a further reduction of the punitive award to $ 507.5 million on the ground that under the circumstances the appropriate ratio of punitives to compensatories was 1:1. See id. at 2634. The Exxon Court applied this ratio as a matter of federal “maritime common law,” see id. at 2626, but the Court’s concern with the predictability and consistency of punitive awards, see id. at 2627, may apply to Section 1983 cases as well.
However, the particular ratio chosen by the Exxon Court is unlikely to constrain all such awards in Section 1983 cases. The Exxon Court stressed that based on the jury’s findings the conduct in the Exxon case involved “no earmarks of exceptional blameworthiness” such as “intentional or malicious conduct” or “behavior driven primarily by desire for gain,” and that the case was not one in which the compensatory damage award was small or in which the defendant’s conduct was unlikely to be detected. Id. at 2633. The Exxon Court likewise noted that some areas of law were distinguishable from the Exxon case in that those areas implicated a regulatory goal of “induc[ing] private litigation to supplement official enforcement that might fall short if unaided.” See id. at 2622. These observations suggest why the Exxon Court’s 1:1 ratio may well not translate to the context of a Section 1983 claim. Moreover, the Exxon Court did not state that a ratio such as the one it applied in the Exxon case should be included in jury instructions rather than simply being applied by the judge during review of the jury award.138 However, given the possibility that courts may in the future apply analogous principles in the Section 1983 context, counsel may wish to seek the submission to the jury of interrogatories that elicit the jury’s view on relevant factual matters such as whether the conduct qualifying for the punitive award was merely reckless or whether it involved some greater degree of culpability.
The Court’s due process precedents indicate a concern that vague jury instructions may increase the risk of arbitrary punitive damages awards. See State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 418 (2003) (“Vague instructions, or those that merely inform the jury to avoid ‘passion or prejudice,’... do little to aid the decisionmaker in its task of assigning appropriate weight to evidence that is relevant and evidence that is tangential or only inflammatory”). However, as noted above, the Court has not held that due process requires jury instructions to reflect Gore’s three-factor approach.139 To the contrary, the Court has upheld against a due process challenge an award rendered by a jury that had received instructions that were much less specific. See Pacific Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U.S. 1, 6 n.1 (1991) (quoting jury instruction); id. at 43 (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (arguing that “the trial court's instructions in this case provided no meaningful standards to guide the jury's decision to impose punitive damages or to fix the amount”). It is not clear that it would be either feasible or advisable to import all three Gore factors into jury instructions on punitive damages in Section 1983 cases.
The first factor – the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct – may appropriately be included in the instruction. The model instruction lists that consideration among the factors that the jury may consider in determining whether to award punitive damages and in determining the size of such damages. In assessing reprehensibility, a jury can take into account, for instance, whether an offense was violent or nonviolent; whether the offense posed a risk to health or safety; or whether a defendant was deceptive. See Gore, 517 U.S. at 576.140 The jury can also take into account that “repeated misconduct is more reprehensible than an individual instance of malfeasance.” Id. at 577.141 Where supported by the facts, the jury may also consider a plaintiff’s improper conduct as mitigating the need for a high punitive damages award. Brand Marketing Group v. Interteck Testing, 801 F.3d 347, 363 (3d Cir. 2015).
In considering reprehensibility, the jury can also be instructed to consider the harm actually caused by the defendant’s act, as well as the harm the defendant’s act could have caused and the harm that could result if such acts are not deterred in the future.142 However, the Court’s decision in Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 127 S. Ct. 1057 (2007), underscores the need for caution with respect to such an instruction in a case where the jury might consider harm to people other than the plaintiff. If a jury bases a punitive damages award “in part upon its desire to punish the defendant for harming persons who are not before the court (e.g., victims whom the parties do not represent),” that award “amount[s] to a taking of ‘property’ from the defendant without due process.” Philip Morris, 127 S. Ct. at 1060. The Court reasoned that permitting a jury to punish the defendant for harm caused to non-plaintiffs would deprive the defendant of the chance to defend itself and would invite standardless speculation by the jury:
[A] defendant threatened with punishment for injuring a nonparty victim has no opportunity to defend against the charge, by showing, for example in a case such as this, that the other victim was not entitled to damages because he or she knew that smoking was dangerous or did not rely upon the defendant's statements to the contrary. For another [thing], to permit punishment for injuring a nonparty victim would add a near standardless dimension to the punitive damages equation. How many such victims are there? How seriously were they injured? Under what circumstances did injury occur? The trial will not likely answer such questions as to nonparty victims. The jury will be left to speculate. And the fundamental due process concerns to which our punitive damages cases refer – risks of arbitrariness, uncertainty and lack of notice – will be magnified. Philip Morris, 127 S. Ct. at 1063.
However, the Philip Morris Court conceded that “harm to other victims... is relevant to a different part of the punitive damages constitutional equation, namely, reprehensibility”:
In other words, “[e]vidence of actual harm to nonparties can help to show that the conduct that harmed the plaintiff also posed a substantial risk of harm to the general public, and so was particularly reprehensible – although counsel may argue in a particular case that conduct resulting in no harm to others nonetheless posed a grave risk to the public, or the converse.” Id. at 1064. But the Court stressed that “a jury may not go further than this and use a punitive damages verdict to punish a defendant directly on account of harms it is alleged to have visited on nonparties.” Id. States143 must ensure “that juries are not asking the wrong question, i.e., seeking, not simply to determine reprehensibility, but also to punish for harm caused strangers.” Id. “[W]here the risk of that misunderstanding is a significant one – because, for instance, of the sort of evidence that was introduced at trial or the kinds of argument the plaintiff made to the jury – a court, upon request, must protect against that risk.” Id. at 1065.
Accordingly, where evidence or counsel’s argument to the jury indicates that the defendant’s conduct harmed people other than the plaintiff, Philip Morris requires the court – upon request – to ensure that the jury is not confused as to the use it can make of this information in assessing punitive damages. The Philip Morris Court did not specify how the trial court should prevent jury confusion on this issue. The penultimate paragraph in Instruction 4.8.3 attempts to explain the distinction between permissible and impermissible uses of information relating to harm to third parties. This paragraph is bracketed to indicate that it should be given only when necessitated by the evidence or argument presented to the jury.
The model does not state that reprehensibility is a prerequisite to the award of punitive damages,144 because precedent in civil rights cases indicates that the jury can award punitive damages if it finds the defendant maliciously or wantonly violated the plaintiff’s rights, without separately finding that the defendant’s conduct was egregious. In Kolstad, the Supreme Court interpreted a statutory requirement that the jury must find the defendant acted “with malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual” in order to award punitive damages under Title VII. See Kolstad, 527 U.S. at 534 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(1)). Reasoning that “[t]he terms ‘malice’ and ‘reckless’ ultimately focus on the actor's state of mind,” the Court rejected the view “that eligibility for punitive damages can only be described in terms of an employer's ‘egregious’ misconduct.” Kolstad, 527 U.S. at 534-35. Since the Kolstad Court drew on the Smith v. Wade standard in delineating the punitive damages standard under Title VII, Kolstad’s reasoning seems equally applicable to the standard for punitive damages under Section 1983. The Third Circuit has applied Kolstad’s definition of recklessness to a Section 1983 case, albeit in a non-precedential opinion. See Whittaker v. Fayette County, 65 Fed. Appx. 387, 393 (3d Cir. April 9, 2003) (non-precedential opinion); see also Schall v. Vazquez, 322 F. Supp. 2d 594, 602 (E.D. Pa. 2004) (in a Section 1983 case, applying Kolstad’s holding “that a defendant's state of mind and not the egregious conduct is determinative in awarding punitive damages”).
It is far less clear that the jury should be instructed to consider the second Gore factor (the ratio of actual to punitive damages).145 Though the Court has “decline[d] to impose a bright line ratio which a punitive damages award cannot exceed,” it has stated that “in practice, few awards exceeding a single digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to a significant degree, will satisfy due process.” State Farm, 538 U.S. at 425. However, the analysis is complicated by the possibility that the permissible ratio will vary inversely to the size of the compensatory damages award.146 See id. (stating that “ratios greater than those we have previously upheld may comport with due process” where an especially reprehensible act causes only small damages, and that conversely, “[w]hen compensatory damages are substantial, then a lesser ratio, perhaps only equal to compensatory damages, can reach the outermost limit of the due process guarantee”).147 Instructing a jury that its punitive damages award must not exceed some multiple of its compensatory damages award might have undesirable effects. Though such a directive might constrain some punitive damages awards, in other cases (where a jury would otherwise be inclined to award only a small amount of punitive damages) calling the jury’s attention to a multiple of the compensatory award might anchor the jury’s deliberations at a higher figure. In addition, it is possible that a jury that wished to award a particular total sum to a plaintiff might redistribute its award between compensatory and punitive damages in order to comply with the stated ratio.
Due to the complexities and potential downsides of a proportionality instruction, the Committee has not included proportionality language in the model instruction. However, in a case in which the compensatory damages will be substantial (such as a wrongful death case), it may be useful to instruct the jury to consider the relationship between the amount of any punitive award and the amount of harm the defendant caused to the plaintiff.148 In such a case, instructing the jury to consider that relationship would not unduly confine a punitive award but could help to ensure that any such award is not unconstitutionally excessive.
The Court’s due process cases also raise some question about the implications of evidence concerning a defendant’s financial resources. The Court has stated that such evidence will not loosen the limits imposed by due process on the size of a punitive award. See State Farm, 538 U.S. at 427 (“The wealth of a defendant cannot justify an otherwise unconstitutional punitive damages award.”).149 Elsewhere, the Court has noted its concern that evidence of wealth could trigger jury bias: “Jury instructions typically leave the jury with wide discretion in choosing amounts, and the presentation of evidence of a defendant's net worth creates the potential that juries will use their verdicts to express biases against big businesses, particularly those without strong local presences.” Honda Motor Co., Ltd. v. Oberg, 512 U.S. 415, 432 (1994). Although those concerns may be salient in products liability cases brought against wealthy corporations, in Section 1983 cases, evidence of an individual defendant’s financial resources may be more likely to constrain than to inflate a punitive damages award. However, the possibility that a government employer might indemnify an individual defendant complicates the analysis.
“[E]vidence of a tortfeasor's wealth is traditionally admissible as a measure of the amount of punitive damages that should be awarded.” Fact Concerts, 453 U.S. at 270.150 If an individual defendant will not be indemnified for an award of punitive damages, it seems clear that evidence of the defendant’s financial resources is relevant and admissible on the question of punitive damages. See Fact Concerts, 453 U.S. at 269 (“By allowing juries and courts to assess punitive damages in appropriate circumstances against the offending official, based on his personal financial resources, [Section 1983] directly advances the public's interest in preventing repeated constitutional deprivations.”).
If the individual defendant will be indemnified, however, the relevance of the individual defendant’s limited financial resources becomes more complex. Arguably, there may be an even more pressing need to ensure that jury awards are not inflated. In a partial dissent in Keenan v. City of Philadelphia, 983 F.2d 459 (3d Cir. 1992), Judge Higginbotham argued that when an individual defendant will be indemnified by his or her government employer, the plaintiff should be required to submit evidence of the individual defendant’s net worth in order to obtain punitive damages. See id. at 484 (Higginbotham, J., dissenting in part). Judge Higginbotham asserted that without such evidence, a jury might be too inclined to award large punitive damages, to the detriment of innocent taxpayers. See id. at 477. Judge Higginbotham’s view, however, has not become circuit precedent. An earlier Third Circuit panel had stated that “evidence of [the defendant’s] financial status” is not “a prerequisite to the imposition of punitive damages.” Bennis v. Gable, 823 F.2d 723, 734 n.14 (3d Cir. 1987). Though Judge Higginbotham rejected Bennis’s statement as “dicta,” Keenan, 983 F.2d at 482 (Higginbotham, J., dissenting in part), Judge Becker disagreed, see id. at 472 n.12 (footnote by Becker, J.) (describing Bennis as “circuit precedent”), and a later district court opinion has taken the view that Judge Higginbotham’s approach is not binding, see Garner v. Meoli, 19 F. Supp. 2d 378, 392 (E.D. Pa. 1998) (rejecting “defendants argument, based on Judge Higginbotham's dissent in Keenan... , that a prerequisite to the awarding of punitive damages is evidence of defendants' net worth and that the burden for producing such evidence must be carried by plaintiffs”). Thus, it appears that under current Third Circuit law the plaintiff need not submit evidence of the defendant’s net worth in order to obtain punitive damages in a Section 1983 case.151 Accordingly, the last paragraph of the model is bracketed because it should be omitted in cases where no evidence is presented concerning the defendant’s finances.
The definition of “malicious” in Instruction 4.8.3 (with respect to punitive damages) differs from that provided in Instruction 4.10 (with respect to Eighth Amendment excessive force claims). If the jury finds that the defendant acted “maliciously and sadistically, for the purpose of causing harm” (such that the defendant violated the Eighth Amendment by employing excessive force), that finding should also establish that the defendant “acted maliciously or wantonly in violating the plaintiff’s federal rights,” so that the jury has discretion to award punitive damages. Thus, in an Eighth Amendment excessive force case involving only one claim and one defendant, the Committee suggests that the court substitute the following for the first three paragraphs of Instruction 4.8.3:
If you have found that [defendant] violated the Eighth Amendment by using force against [plaintiff] maliciously and sadistically, for the purpose of causing harm, then you may consider awarding punitive damages in addition to nominal or compensatory damages. A jury may award punitive damages to punish a defendant, or to deter the defendant and others like [him/her] from committing such conduct in the future. Where appropriate, the jury may award punitive damages even if the plaintiff suffered no actual injury. However, bear in mind that an award of punitive damages is discretionary; that is, you may decide to award punitive damages, or you may decide not to award them. However, in Eighth Amendment excessive force cases that also involve other types of claims (or that involve claims against other defendants, such as for failure to intervene), the court should not omit the first three paragraphs of Instruction 4.8.3. Rather, the court should modify the first bullet point in the second paragraph, so that it begins: “! For purposes of considering punitive damages, a violation is malicious if....”
(Last Updated July 2019)
129 See Comment for alternative language tailored to Eighth Amendment excessive force claims.
130 The Court of Appeals has not addressed the question of the appropriate standard of proof for punitive damages with respect to Section 1983 claims, but at least one district court in the Third Circuit has applied the preponderance standard. See Hopkins v. City of Wilmington, 615 F. Supp. 1455, 1465 (D. Del. 1985); cf., e.g., White v. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe R. Co., 364 F.3d 789, 805 (6th Cir. 2004) (en banc) (“[T]he appropriate burden of proof on a claim for punitive damages under Title VII is a preponderance of the evidence....”), aff’d, 126 S. Ct. 2405 (2006); compare Pacific Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U.S. 1, 23 n.11 (1991) (noting that “[t]here is much to be said in favor of a State's requiring... a standard of ‘clear and convincing evidence’ or, even, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’” for punitive damages, but holding that “the lesser standard prevailing in Alabama – ‘reasonably satisfied from the evidence’ – when buttressed... by [other] procedural and substantive protections... is constitutionally sufficient”).
131 Use “a particular defendant” and “against that defendant” in cases involving multiple defendants.
132 This clause may be most appropriate for cases in which a dangerous act luckily turns out to cause less damage than would have been reasonably expected. See TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp., 509 U.S. 443, 459 (1993) (Stevens, J., joined by Rehnquist, C.J., and Blackmun, J.) (noting a state court’s description of an example in which a person shoots into a crowd but fortuitously injures no one).
133 Include this paragraph only when appropriate. See Comment for a discussion of Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 127 S.Ct. 1057 (2007).
134 See, e.g., Coleman v. Kaye, 87 F.3d 1491, 1509 (3d Cir. 1996) (in sex discrimination case, holding that “the jury's finding of two acts of intentional discrimination, after having been put on notice of a prior act of discrimination against the same plaintiff, evinces the requisite ‘reckless or callous indifference’ to [the plaintiff’s] federally protected rights”); Springer v. Henry, 435 F.3d 268, 281 (3d Cir. 2006) (“A jury may award punitive damages when it finds reckless, callous, intentional or malicious conduct.”).
135 See also Savarese v. Agriss, 883 F.2d 1194, 1204 (3d Cir. 1989) (“[F]or a plaintiff in a section 1983 case to qualify for a punitive award, the defendant's conduct must be, at a minimum, reckless or callous. Punitive damages might also be allowed if the conduct is intentional or motivated by evil motive, but the defendant's action need not necessarily meet this higher standard.”).
136 See Cooper Indus., Inc. v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., 532 U.S. 424, 436 (2001) (holding that “courts of appeals should apply a de novo standard of review when passing on district courts' determinations of the constitutionality of punitive damages awards”).
137 See Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 128 S. Ct. 2605, 2626 (2008) (“The Court’s response to outlier punitive damages awards has thus far been confined by [sic] claims at the constitutional level, and our cases have announced due process standards that every award must pass.”) (citing State Farm and Gore).
138 Admittedly, the Court explained that its use of a ratio was preferable to setting a numerical cap on punitive awards because the ratio “leave[s] the effects of inflation to the jury or judge who assesses the value of actual loss, by pegging punitive to compensatory damages using a ratio or maximum multiple.” Exxon, 128 S. Ct. at 2629. However, this statement need not be read to mean that the jury should be instructed to apply the relevant ratio; it can as easily be taken as an observation that by “pegging punitive to compensatory damages” the ratio will incorporate the jury’s stated view on the appropriate amount of compensatory damages.
139 To date, one of the few specific requirements imposed by the Court is that “[a] jury must be instructed... that it may not use evidence of out of state conduct to punish a defendant for action that was lawful in the jurisdiction where it occurred.” State Farm, 538 U.S. at 422. This requirement stems from the concern that a state should not impose punitive damages based on a defendant’s legal out-of-state conduct; that concern, of course, does not arise in the context of Section 1983 suits.
The Court’s decision in Philip Morris, 127 S. Ct. 1057 (2007) – which addresses the jury’s consideration of harm to third parties – is discussed below.
140 See also CGB Occupational Therapy, Inc. v. RHA Health Services, Inc., 499 F.3d 184, 190 (3d Cir. 2007) (“In evaluating the degree of Sunrise's reprehensibility in this case, we must consider whether:
‘ the harm caused was physical as opposed to economic;
 the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or reckless disregard of the health or safety of others;
 the target of the conduct had financial vulnerability;
 the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and
 the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident.’”)
(quoting Campbell, 538 U.S. at 419); Cortez v. Trans Union, LLC, 617 F.3d 688, 718 n.37 (3d Cir. 2010) (in Fair Credit Reporting Act case, noting in dictum that there was “nothing wrong with a jury focusing on a ‘defendant's seeming insensitivity’ in deciding how much to award as punitive damages”).
141 In considering whether the defendant was a recidivist malefactor, the jury should consider only misconduct similar to that directed against the plaintiff. See State Farm, 538 U.S. at 424 (“[B]ecause the Campbells have shown no conduct by State Farm similar to that which harmed them, the conduct that harmed them is the only conduct relevant to the reprehensibility analysis.”); Brand Marketing Group v. Interteck Testing, 801 F.3d 347, 365 (3d Cir. 2015) (holding State Farm “does not prohibit the consideration of potential public harm in addition to the plaintiff’s injury. It prohibits only the consideration of conduct that is unrelated to the plaintiff’s case.”).
142 See TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp., 509 U.S. 443, 460 (1993) (Stevens, J., joined by Rehnquist, C.J., and Blackmun, J.) (“It is appropriate to consider the magnitude of the potential harm that the defendant's conduct would have caused to its intended victim if the wrongful plan had succeeded, as well as the possible harm to other victims that might have resulted if similar future behavior were not deterred.”) (emphasis in original).
143 Philip Morris concerned a state-law claim litigated in state court and thus the Court focused on the limits imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause on state governments. Presumably, the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause imposes a similar constraint with respect to federal claims litigated in federal court.
144 Some sets of model instructions include a reference to “extraordinary misconduct” or equivalent terms. See Eighth Circuit (Civil) Instruction 4.53 (“extraordinary misconduct”); Sand Instruction 87 92 (“extreme or outrageous conduct”). One reason for the inclusion of this language may be that the instruction approved in Smith v. Wade referred to “extraordinary misconduct.” Smith, 461 U.S. at 33.
145 It is also unclear how a court would instruct a jury on the third Gore factor in the context of a Section 1983 suit; the model instruction omits any reference to this factor.
146 Indeed, an inflexible ratio would conflict with the well-established principle that compensatory damages are not a prerequisite for the imposition of punitive damages in civil rights cases. See Allah v. Al Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2000) ("Punitive damages may... be awarded based solely on a constitutional violation, provided the proper showing is made."); cf. Alexander v. Riga, 208 F.3d 419, 430 (3d Cir. 2000) (in suit under Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act of 1866, noting that "beyond a doubt, punitive damages can be awarded in a civil rights case where a jury finds a constitutional violation, even when the jury has not awarded compensatory or nominal damages."); see also Williams v. Kaufman County, 352 F.3d 994, 1016 (5th Cir. 2003) (“Because actions seeking vindication of constitutional rights are more likely to result only in nominal damages, strict proportionality would defeat the ability to award punitive damages at all.”).
The Court of Appeals has also suggested that the denominator used by a reviewing court might sometimes be larger than the amount of compensatory damages actually awarded by the jury. See CGB Occupational, 499 F.3d at 192 n.4 (citing with apparent approval a case in which the court “measur[ed] $150,000 punitive damages award against $135,000 award in attorney fees and costs, rather than against $2,000 compensatory award” and a case in which the court “consider[ed] expert testimony of potential loss to plaintiffs in the amount of $769,895, in addition to compensatory damages awarded for past harm, as part of ratio's denominator”).
147 See also Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 128 S. Ct. 2605, 2622 (2008) (noting that “heavier punitive awards have been thought to be justifiable... when the value of injury and the corresponding compensatory award are small (providing low incentives to sue)”).
148 A jury instructed to consider this ratio should be directed, for this purpose, to consider the harm the defendant caused the plaintiff, not harm caused to third parties. See Philip Morris, 127 S.Ct. at 1063 (describing the second Gore factor as “whether the award bears a reasonable relationship to the actual and potential harm caused by the defendant to the plaintiff”).
149 In the same discussion, however, the Court quoted with apparent approval Justice Breyer’s concurrence in Gore: “[Wealth] provides an open ended basis for inflating awards when the defendant is wealthy.... That does not make its use unlawful or inappropriate; it simply means that this factor cannot make up for the failure of other factors, such as 'reprehensibility,' to constrain significantly an award that purports to punish a defendant's conduct.” State Farm, 538 U.S. at 427 28 (quoting Gore, 517 U.S. at 591 (Breyer, J., joined by O’Connor & Souter, JJ., concurring)). Although the State Farm Court’s quotation of this passage suggests the Court did not consider wealth an impermissible factor in the award of punitive damages, Justice Ginsburg posited that the Court’s reasoning might “unsettle” that principle. See State Farm, 538 U.S. at 438 n.2 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
The Court of Appeals has considered the defendant’s wealth as a factor relevant to its due process analysis; the court noted that a rich defendant may be more difficult to deter and that in some cases a rich defendant may engage in litigation misconduct in order to wear down an impecunious plaintiff. See CGB Occupational, 499 F.3d at 194 (“What sets this case apart and makes it, we hope, truly unusual is the repeated use of procedural devices to grind an opponent down, without regard for whether those devices advanced any legitimate interest.”). The court suggested, however, that a jury might have more difficulty than judges would in assessing litigation misconduct and its possible relevance to a punitive damages analysis. See id. at 194 n.7.
150 See Cortez v. Trans Union, LLC, 617 F.3d 688, 718 n.37 (3d Cir. 2010) (in a Fair Credit Reporting Act case, stating in dictum that “[a] jury can consider the relative wealth of a defendant in deciding what amount is sufficient to inflict the intended punishment”).
151 One commentator has argued that if an indemnified defendant submits evidence of limited personal means, the plaintiff should be permitted to submit evidence that the defendant will be indemnified. See Martin A. Schwartz, Should Juries Be Informed that Municipality Will Indemnify Officer's § 1983 Liability for Constitutional Wrongdoing?, 86 IOWA L. REV. 1209, 1247 48 (2001) (“If a defendant introduces evidence of personal financial circumstances in order to persuade the jury to award low punitive damages, when in fact the defendant's punitive damages will be indemnified, failure to inform the jury about indemnification seriously misleads the jury.”). The Third Circuit has not addressed this question.