The Oregon Court of Appeals last week affirmed a jury award of $100,000 in punitive damages in a case where compensatory damages were $500. The Court applied the standards set forth by the Oregon Supreme Court last year in Hamlin v. Hampton Lumber Mills, Inc., finding that the defendant engaged in sufficiently reprehensible behavior to justify punitive damages 200 times compensatory damages.
In Lithia Medford LM, Inc. v. Yovan, defendant purchased an automobile from plaintiff, and soon thereafter found a discrepancy between the mileage on the odometer and the actual mileage. Following an extended dispute over how to resolve the issue, plaintiff sued to rescind the sale due to mutual mistake. Defendant counterclaimed for violation of the Oregon Unlawful Debt Collections Practices Act. The trial court reduced the jury's award of $100,000 in punitive damages to $2,000, to bring it in line with the modest amount of compensatory damages.
Hearing the case en banc, the Court of Appeals split on whether the trial court properly reduced the punitives award to a single-digit multiple of the compensatory damages. Judge Nakamoto, writing for the majority, stated that the consumer had proven that the car dealer "repeatedly used deceptive and abusive tactics against a financially vulnerable consumer to enhance its financial interests." The court also pointed to the dealer's "arrogant presentation to the jury of its position that it had done nothing wrong" to justify retaining the jury's punitive damages award. These facts supported the 200-1 ratio of punitive to compensatory damages.
Judge Wollheim, writing for the minority, advocated for reducing the punitives to $25,000, which is comparable to the statutory penalties available under the Unlawful Debt Collections Practices Act.
See our discussion of Hamlin, and its analysis of punitive damages in cases in which compensatory damages are small, here.