Monday, September 13, 2004
C.A.: Punitive Damages After Criminal Conviction Not Double Jeopardy
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A defendant may be convicted of a crime, then subjected to punitive damages in a civil action based on the same conduct, without violating the Double Jeopardy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the First District Court of Appeal for held Friday.
In an opinion by Justice Mark Simons of Div. Five, the court affirmed a judgment awarding nearly $7.6 million, including $35,000 in punitive damages, to the family of James Shore. The 44-year-old American Airlines pilot was killed when a car driven by Deborah Gurnett struck him as he was riding his bicycle in a designated bike lane in Alameda County.
Gurnett was convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and sentenced to 10 years in prison, the maximum term. In the subsequent civil case, she argued that since she had already been punished for her conduct, punitive damages would violate her constitutional rights.
The argument was based on recent U.S. Supreme Court cases holding that the Due Process Clause limits the availability of punitive damages. Gurnett’s defense sought to have the entire jury award thrown out or reduced, arguing that the evidence presented in support of punitive damages caused jurors to inflate the compensatory damage award.
But Simons, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the Double Jeopardy Clause cannot be applied to a civil case litigated by a private party, although it may have application where the government seeks to collect a civil penalty after obtaining a criminal conviction for the same conduct.
“[F]ederal law has consistently isolated purely private litigation, like the lawsuit herein, from scrutiny under the double jeopardy clause, even when the plaintiff seeks and recovers punitive damages from a defendant previously punished criminally for the same course of conduct,” the justice wrote.
Simons also rejected the defense argument that the award violated the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause. That clause also has not been applied to purely private litigation, the justice said.
The court also rejected a substantive due process claim.
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, Simons said there was sufficient evidence to support an award of punitive damages. The award, he said, was “modest” and not disproportionate to the wealth of the defendant, a homeowner with some savings.
The court also affirmed a $50,000 attorney fees award under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1021.4, which allows such awards when a defendant is sued on the basis of the same conduct that resulted in a felony conviction. “No abuse of discretion occurred here,” Simons said of the fee award.
The case is Shore v. Gurnett, A101916.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company