Two Texas ranchers had a long-standing feud. During a drought, 13 of plaintiff’s cattle strayed from plaintiff’s ranch to defendant’s property along a dry river bed. Defendant rounded up the cattle and sold them, despite warnings from the ranch hands that the cattle were not his.
Plaintiff brought a conversion action and prevailed at trial. The jury awarded $5,327.11, the price of the cattle and $1.25 million in punitive damages. Because the jury also found that defendant had violated a felony statute, the statutory caps on punitive damages did not apply and the trial court awarded the entire amount of the verdict.
In Bennett v. Reynolds (.pdf), the Texas Supreme Court held that the facts warranted the imposition of punitive damages despite the absence of bodily injury or crushing pecuniary loss. The deliberate taking of another person’s cattle fit the statutory definition of “malice.”
The court also considered the extent to which a fact-finder could consider conduct separate from the underlying tort in determining liability for punitive damages. Defendant had allegedly attempted to bribe and threaten witnesses, tamper with the evidence, and bring meritless litigation against witnesses. The court held that the jury could consider these acts in determining the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct. “Obviously, a tortfeasor’s attempts to cover his tracks and escape responsibility can imply willfulness.”
Nevertheless, the court reversed the judgment. The award exceeded the permissible ratio of compensatory to actual damages established in State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell (.pdf). That case held that, except for particularly egregious cases, a 4:1 ratio neared the outer bounds of constitutionally permitted punishment. The case before the court was not sufficiently serious to warrant a deviation from this guideline. The court remanded the case for reassessment of punitive damages in light of the opinion.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The great-grandfather of the author of this post was forced to leave Texas for a brief time after he and a neighbor captured a livestock thief on his ranch. They issued a “summary judgment” which led to the kind of punitive measures that cannot be corrected on appeal.