by Christian Stegmaier
In South Carolina, punitive (or exemplary) damages can be awarded by the fact finder (typically the jury) in a civil action where the alleged wrongdoing exceeds the bounds of simple negligence or constitutes a violation of statute or regulation.
In our state, the award of punitive damages is reviewable by the appellate courts. On appeal, the appellate court must conduct a review of the award de novo (or anew) pursuant to the “guideposts” enunciated by the United States Supreme Court in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996).
Those “guideposts” include the following considerations:
(1) Degree of Reprehensibility of Appellant’s Misconduct;
(2) Disparity Between Actual and Punitive Damages Award; and
(3) Difference Between Civil Penalties and Punitive Damages Award.
Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court again recognized the significance of both Gore and the necessity for de novo review by the appellate courts.
In RRR, Inc. v. Toggas, 2009 WL 580355 (2009), held the Court of Appeals – while appropriately considering the factors listed in Gamble v. Stevenson, 305 S.C. 104, 406 S.E.2d 350 (1991), erred by failing to take up a de novo review of the Gore “guideposts.” The Supreme Court conducted such a review. Upon doing so, in concluded the punitive damages award was reasonable pursuant to Gore.
Though finding error in the Court of Appeals’ holding, the Supreme Court upheld the grant of punitives in RRR.
Bottom line analysis for appellants of punitive damages awards: (1) You/your client is entitled to a de novo review of the award by the appellate court; and (2) while the Gamble factors are important, so are the Gore “guideposts.”