The Third Circuit delivered a Christmas present Dec. 24, issuing an opinion – albeit “not precedential” – that reduced a 3.13:1 ratio for punitive damages down to a 1:1 ratio. Hat tip to for catching the decision.

Jurinko v. Medical Protective Co. involved a bad faith insurance lawsuit arising out of a medical malpractice policy. The physician plaintiff was awarded more than $1.6 million in compensatory damages against his insurer, as well as $6.25 million in punitive damages, for the insurer’s “bad faith failure to settle” for the policy limits before trial.

Although the Third Circuit found sufficient evidence to support the punitive judgment, its analysis of the constitutional limits on the amount of the punitive-damage award led it to reduce the judgment. The court employed a 1:1 ratio as its starting “guidepost,” and analyzed the punitive-damage award using the factors from State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 416 (2003).

With regard to the reprehensibility of the insurance company’s conduct, the court noted that there was no evidence of physical harm to the insured, no evidence of recidivism, nor any reckless disregard of health or safety. In addition, “the compensatory damages [were] substantial, [the insured] suffered only economic harm, and the harm was easily measured” because it was the amount of the judgment that exceeded the policy limits. The amount of punitive damages also far exceeded the civil penalties and sanctions possible for the insurer’s conduct. On the other hand, the Third Circuit recognized that the insurer’s conduct was intentional, and the insured was financially vulnerable.

In finding a 3:13:1 ratio of punitive damages to compensatory to be excessive, the Third Circuit noted that many courts start with a 1:1 guidepost (although the Ninth Circuit is not necessarily one of them). In addition, while the Supreme Court has declined to explicitly set a 1:1 ratio as a constitutional limit, it has employed that ratio in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 128 S. Ct. 2605, 2633 (2008), this year’s maritime decision (discussed in this prior post). The court concluded that “[i]n light of the substantial compensatory award and the harm being exclusively economic, this guidepost advises a reduced award.”

While it is not entirely clear why the decision is marked “not precedential,” footnote 1 may suggest an answer. It states: “The Honorable Maryanne Trump Barry participated in the oral argument but discovered facts causing her to recuse from this matter prior to filing of the Opinion. The remaining judges are unanimous in this decision, and this Opinion and Judgment are therefore being filed by a quorum of the panel.”