Royal Oakes was quoted extensively in an Oct. 7, 2013, Claims Journal article, California Court Of Appeals Decision Provides Reasoning Behind Punitive Damages Calculations, about a significant insurance case where $19 million in punitive damages were awarded, then later shot down by the California Court of Appeals, which found the verdict excessive. The court capped the award at $350,000.
The case, Nickerson v. Stonebridge Life Ins. Co., involved a former Marine who sought payment for 109 days in the hospital due to a fall after his insurance company concluded that only 19 of the days were medically necessary. The jury awarded him $35,000 for emotional distress and $19 million in punitive damages.
Oakes told the publication that traditionally the way in which punitive damages have been calculated has varied.
“For years the appellate courts have been trying to interpret the various pronouncements by the U.S. Supreme Court about the issue of the size of punitive damages and specifically, the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages. The reason it has been a bit of a struggle on occasion is because of the high court and the appellate courts, in general, are not prepared to impose a strict bright line test, limiting punitive damages to a single digit ratio,” Oakes said.
“Having said that, this new case is one of many cases that have come very close to seeing that, in the absence of exceptionally reprehensible conduct, then it is a due process violation to exceed a ratio of 9 or 10 to 1. In fact, many appellate courts have suggested that far smaller ratios are appropriate in virtually all cases.”
Oakes also said that the decision is significant to insurers because it doesn’t include breach-of-contract damages.
“The significance of this decision is to reinforce the idea that though evidence of reprehensible conduct may have been found by a jury; nonetheless, it is almost impossible for an appellate court to find that a ratio of more than 10 to 1 between punitives and the compensatory damages satisfies constitutional due process requirements. There’s another very significant and separate aspect to this decision. When you figure out how much compensatory damages exist in order to come up with the punitives to compensatory ratio, do you have to decide what components of damages should be included in compensatory damages? This new Nickerson case reaffirms the idea that in computing compensatory damages, you do not include breach of contract damages. Instead, you only include damages for torts, such as bad faith and emotional distress,” he said.
According to Oakes, in Nickerson the court concluded that in determining compensatory damages, “for purposes of computing a ratio between punitive and compensatory, you do not include the breach of contract damages.
“The reason for that is that punitive damages relate to tortuous conduct. You don’t get punitive for a breach of contract. You might get punitive for tort, depending on the tort and depending on whether the punitive damage standard is met, such as malice, oppression or fraud. And so, this case is an important reminder that in computing compensatory damages for purposes of arriving at a ratio between punitives and compensatory you exclude breach of contract damages and you include tort damages,” he said.
In general, if a contract is breached and the party who breached it is sued, damages are limited to contractor damages, the article notes.
“However, years ago, the courts decided that because of the special relationship between a policy holder and an insurance company that if a policyholder is suing for breach of contract and can also go beyond that and prove additional conduct such as bad faith or emotional distress then the policy holder is entitled to try to assert those causes of action,” Oakes said.
Oakes also told the Claims Journal that there have been several court decisions that have come close to saying it’s a due process violation to exceed the ratio of 9 or 10 to 1 between punitive and compensatory damages.
“I think that we have been moving in the direction of a bright line test limiting punitive damages to a single digit ratio. It may be that because every case is different and you occasionally see cases that suggest an extreme level of reprehensibility, there will continue to be a reluctance to impose a bright line test,” Oakes said.