BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 17 (1996)

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Cite as: 517 U. S. 559 (1996)

Opinion of the Court

the $2 million award against BMW is grossly excessive: the degree of reprehensibility of the nondisclosure; the disparity between the harm or potential harm suffered by Dr. Gore and his punitive damages award; and the difference between this remedy and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases. We discuss these considerations in turn.

Degree of Reprehensibility

Perhaps the most important indicium of the reasonableness of a punitive damages award is the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct.23 As the Court stated

nearly 150 years ago, exemplary damages imposed on a defendant should reflect "the enormity of his offense." Day v. Woodworth, 13 How. 363, 371 (1852). See also St. Louis, I. M. & S. R. Co. v. Williams, 251 U. S. 63, 66-67 (1919) (punitive award may not be "wholly disproportioned to the offense"); Browning-Ferris Industries of Vt., Inc. v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U. S. 257, 301 (1989) (O'Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (reviewing court "should examine the gravity of the defendant's conduct and the harshness of the award of punitive damages").24 This

principle reflects the accepted view that some wrongs are more blameworthy than others. Thus, we have said that

23 "The flagrancy of the misconduct is thought to be the primary consideration in determining the amount of punitive damages." Owen, A Punitive Damages Overview: Functions, Problems and Reform, 39 Vill. L. Rev. 363, 387 (1994).

24 The principle that punishment should fit the crime "is deeply rooted and frequently repeated in common-law jurisprudence." Solem v. Helm, 463 U. S. 277, 284 (1983). See Burkett v. Lanata, 15 La. Ann. 337, 339 (1860) (punitive damages should be "commensurate to the nature of the offence"); Blanchard v. Morris, 15 Ill. 35, 36 (1853) ("[W]e cannot say [the exemplary damages] are excessive under the circumstances; for the proofs show that threats, violence, and imprisonment, were accompanied by mental fear, torture, and agony of mind"); Louisville & Northern R. Co. v. Brown, 127 Ky. 732, 749, 106 S. W. 795, 799 (1908) ("We are not aware of any case in which the court has sustained a verdict as large as this one unless the injuries were permanent").


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