The standard of review for punitive damages awards

The considerations for an award of punitive damages can strike one as inherently subjective, especially those that govern whether a particular award is allowed by the United States Constitution, as determined in State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell (2003) 538 U.S. 408:

(1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s misconduct; (2) the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.

Because of this subjectivity, you might expect that an appellate court reviewing the constitutionality of an award would afford great deference to the trial court, especially after a bench trial.

But you would be wrong.

We are reminded in Rubio v. CIA Wheel Group, case no. B300021 (2d Dist. April 15, 2021) that review of these factors is de novo. In other words, the Court of Appeal makes its own determination about whether these factors justify the punitive damages award.

In this instance, as in many cases decided de novo, other standards of review can come into play regarding subsidiary questions. But the ultimate determination of constitutionality under State Farm factors, and the degree to which each of those factors supports the award, will be decided by the appellate court without any deference to the trial court’s determination of the award.