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Ratios, (Ir)Rationality & Civil Rights Punitive Awards

34 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2006  

Caprice L. Roberts

Savannah Law School


The Supreme Court's federalization of punitive damages review continues to engender controversy. The Court continues to grant certiorari (see, e.g., Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 05-1256) to clarify its Due Process analysis of punitive damage awards, which centers on the three guideposts: (i) reprehensibility of defendant's conduct, (ii) ratio between compensatory and punitive damage award, and (iii) disparity between punitive award and sanctions for comparable conduct. This article, written for the Remedies Forum, focuses on the effect of the Court's tightening of the ratio prong on federal civil rights cases. Regarding the ratio prong, the Court stated in State Farm that in practice, few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages . . . will satisfy due process and that it is obvious that [s]ingle-digit multipliers are more likely to comport with due process. This article addresses whether federal appellate courts feel constrained by State Farm's stated preference for single-digit ratios, or instead, jettison the ratio strictures in favor of other prongs.

Constitutional torts and civil rights cases typically involve harms that are nonpecuniary in nature. Per se damages are no longer permissible in these cases. The value of the harm is difficult to commodify. Juries often award nominal or low compensatory awards as a result. The punitive award must be proportional to the compensatory award, yet still serve the goals of deterrence and punishment. Civil rights violations demonstrate the problematic nature of strict adherence to the Court's ratio prong.

An appendix to the article is a chart that catalogues federal appellate cases that have grappled with State Farm's ratio principle. The chart summarizes the civil rights claim at issue, the factfinder ratio, remittitur, the appellate ratio, and the appellate court's rationale. Thirteen civil rights cases addressed circumstances in which the ratio already comported with a single-digit framework. Five civil rights cases reduced a multiple-digit award to a single-digit. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court jurisprudence favoring single digits, other federal courts in four cases upheld double - (i.e., 10-99), triple - (i.e., 100-999), or even quadruple - (i.e., 1,000-9,999) digit ratios. These courts strain to demonstrate compliance with Gore/State Farm's guideposts. Yet, if one is cognizant of the policies behind punitive damages and the history and goals of civil rights damages, it becomes evident why some courts find it difficult to be faithful to a strict reading of the ratio component of the Supreme Court's guideposts. Accordingly, the premise of this Article is that civil rights cases are particularly well-suited to demonstrate the irrationality of the ratio prong.

Keywords: Civil Rights, constitutional torts, punitive damages, ratio guidepost, single-digit ratio, nonpecuniary harm, valuation, deterrence, punishment, vindication, State Farm, BMW, judicial tort reform

JEL Classification: K10, K13, K41

Suggested Citation

Roberts, Caprice L., Ratios, (Ir)Rationality & Civil Rights Punitive Awards. Akron Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Caprice L. Roberts (Contact Author)

Savannah Law School ( email )

516 Drayton St.
Savannah, GA 31401
United States


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