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H, Honda Motor Co. v. Oberg,

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman

From: The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2nd Edition)

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall

From: Oxford Constitutions (http://oxcon.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 08 August 2020

(p. 475) Honda Motor Co. v. Oberg,

512 U.S. 415 (1994), argued 20 Apr. 1994, decided 24 June 1994; Stevens for the Court, Scalia concurring, Ginsburg and Rehnquist in dissent. A 1910 amendment to the Oregon Constitution provided that, “no fact tried to a jury shall be otherwise reexamined … unless the court can affirmatively say there is no evidence to support the verdict.” The Oregon courts held that contrary to the law in the federal courts and every other state, this provision prohibited any review of punitive damage awards for excessiveness. The question presented in Oberg is whether this provision violates the *Fourteenth Amendment *Due Process Clause. The Court concluded that it does.

The dissent argued that although the Court’s opinions in Pacific Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip (1991) and TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp. (1993) did place constitutional outer limits on *punitive damages, other Oregon procedures, which included proof by clear and convincing evidence and jury instructions that included specific substantive criteria, were sufficient to satisfy due process. However, the majority concluded that these procedures do not guard against excessive awards by juries that fail to follow the instructions and return “a lawless, biased, or arbitrary verdict” (p. 433).

As this quotation suggests, a key impetus behind the Supreme Court’s punitive damage jurisprudence (see punitive damages) was a concern for runaway juries. The Court cited a study by Rustad (1992) that in over 10 percent of cases the judge found damages to be excessive. Since Oberg, the empirical literature on jury punitive damage awards supports the Supreme Court’s concern that some juries have difficulty assessing punitive damages, but there are dissenting voices. Oberg is now one of several Supreme Court opinions establishing both substantive and procedural due process limitations on punitive damages. It was followed by BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore (1996), Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc.(2001), and State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell (2003).

Theodore Eisenberg, Neil LaFountain, Brian Ostrom, David Rottman, and Martin T. Wells, “Juries, Judges, and Punitive Damages: An Empirical Study,” Cornell Law Review 87 (2002): 743–780. Michael Rustad, “In Defense of Punitive Damages in Products Liability: Testing Tort Anecdotes with Empirical Data,” Iowa Law Review 78 (1992): 1–84. Cass R. Sunstein, Reid Hastie, John W. Payne, David A. Schkade, and W. Kip Viscusi, Punitive Damages: Beyond Dogma. (2002).

Joseph Sanders