Today, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed a punitive damage award that had been drastically reduced by the trial judge, and cut still more by the intermediate appellate court, to slightly over $80,000, or 1:1.  The State high court affirmed the punitives as reduced to 1:1.  This may sound like just another case applying the Campbell federal due process guidelines regarding excessive awards.  It isn’t. 

In Slovinski v. Elliott (pdf), plaintiff sued his former employer for defamation.  The jury awarded him $81,600 in emotional distress damages and $2 million in punitives.  The trial judge cut that number to $1 million; the appellate court chopped it down still more,  to 1:1.  The Illinois Supreme Court, with one dissenter, affirmed the reduction to $81,600.  In the process it provided some insight into Illinois procedure for “remitting” –  that’s appellate-speak for cutting –  punitive awards, and the propriety of the amount under Illinois state law.

Procedural challenges. Plaintiff argued that the reductions by the trial and appellate courts were procedurally improper for a number of reasons, e.g., that “specific findings” were required in order to cut, and the failure to make findings meant plaintiff should get his $2 million reinstated.  The answer to that one was “no.”  Courts are simply required to explain why a reduction is necessary, and why they think the trial judge or jury got it wrong, not to jump through meaningless hoops.  A refreshing, common sense approach.

Substantive challenge.   The Supreme Court began by noting that a punitive damage award never compensates the plaintiff, who has been made whole by the compensatory award.  Thus, the focus should be on whether the defendant’s conduct justifies the award.  After that, the court had no trouble concluding that $81,600 in punitives was ample punishment, noting:

  • Defendant’s intent.  The jury heard no evidence that defendant had an intentional, premeditated scheme to harm the plaintiff.  At most, defendant consciously disregarded its employee’s rights. “This places defendant’s conduct on the low end of the scale for punitive damages, far below those cases involving a defendant’s deliberate attempt to harm another person.”
  • No recidivism.  Defendant did not repeat the defamatory statements, but made them only once, and only those present at the meeting heard them.
  • Minimal harm to plaintiff.  The jury’s compensatory damages verdict showed “limited harm to plaintiff.”  There was no damage award for loss of reputation or lost wages.  And on the emotional distress award, there was no evidence of any physical harm to plaintiff, no visits to a doctor or therapist, no evidence that plaintiff missed work, no evidence of any alteration in his daily work activities.

This is Illinois State law we’re talking about.  All of this analysis sounds reminiscent of the federal guidepost considerations used to determine when a punitive award is excessive under the due process clause.  But this court was not using a Campbell-BMW analysis.  Slovenski decided this as a matter of Illinois State law.  

This reduced verdict was affirmed because under Illinois law, “an award of punitive damages must be remitted to the extent that there is no material evidence to support it.”  Even in cases of defamation per se, the  malicious conduct necessary to support an award of punitive damages may not be presumed, but must be proved by competent evidence.”  (Emphasis added.)  The trial court thus abused its discretion is remitting the award to only $1 million because there is no basis in the record to support such an award. 

Trial judges take note: whether you cut or not, abuse of discretion won’t necessarily be a shield.