Numbers have a strong pull on our judgment. If a law says, “Don’t drive a car unreasonably fast,” it is difficult to know exactly what that means. Every person on earth could argue at length justifying their own definition of “unreasonably fast.” But change that law to say, “Don’t drive a car faster than 70 miles per hour,” and all judgment collapses to the single question of whether a car’s speed exceeds 70 mph. Call it simplicity, efficiency, or laziness, but we love rules based on numbers. They make decisions easy. Because numbers mesmerize us, when a law incorporates both a number element and an extra “reasonableness” element, it’s easy to focus on the number part and forget about the rest of the rule.
Take punitive damages, for example. In State Farm v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court laid out just such a mixed rule for the ratio between compensatory and punitive damages:
We decline again to impose a bright-line ratio which a punitive damage award cannot exceed. Our jurisprudence and the principles it has now established demonstrate, however, that, in practice, few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to a significant degree, will satisfy due process. Id. at 425.
Even though couched as a non-rule, the Supreme Court effectively stated that punitive damages should not exceed a 9:1 ratio with compensatory damages, unless there is some good reason for a higher ratio. For example, the Court says that larger ratios may be proper when “a particularly egregious act has resulted in only a small amount of damage.” Id. But that phrase “single-digit ratio” has been stuck in everyone’s mind ever since.
Recently, the Virginia Supreme Court decided Coalson v. Canchola, a case that highlights the allure of the “single-digit ratio” part of this punitive damage rule, and the disinterest received by the other, less easily quantified factors.
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