Browning-Ferris Industries of Vermont Inc. v. Kelco Disposal Inc./Concurrence Brennan

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinions

Justice BRENNAN, with whom Justice MARSHALL joins, concurring.

I join the Court's opinion on the understanding that it leaves the door open for a holding that the Due Process Clause constrains the imposition of punitive damages in civil cases brought by private parties. See ante, at 276-277.

Several of our decisions indicate that even where a statute sets a range of possible civil damages that may be awarded to a private litigant, the Due Process Clause forbids damages awards that are "grossly excessive," Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas, 212 U.S. 86, 111, 29 S.Ct. 220, 227, 53 L.Ed. 417 (1909), or "so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportioned to the offense and obviously unreasonable," St. Louis, I. M. & S. R. Co. v. Williams, 251 U.S. 63, 66-67, 40 S.Ct. 71, 73, 64 L.Ed. 139 (1919). See also Southwestern Telegraph & Telephone Co. v. Danaher, 238 U.S. 482, 491, 35 S.Ct. 886, 888, 59 L.Ed. 1419 (1915); Missouri Pacific R. Co. v. Humes, 115 U.S. 512, 522-523, 6 S.Ct. 110, 113-114, 29 L.Ed. 463 (1885). I should think that, if anything, our scrutiny of awards made without the benefit of a legislature's deliberation and guidance would be less indulgent than our consideration of those that fall within statutory limits.

Without statutory (or at least common-law) standards for the determination of how large an award of punitive damages is appropriate in a given case, juries are left largely to themselves in making this important, and potentially devastating, decision. Indeed, the jury in this case was sent to the jury room with nothing more than the following terse instruction: "In determining the amount of punitive damages, . . . you may take into account the character of the defendants, their financial standing, and the nature of their acts." App. 81. Guidance like this is scarcely better than no guidance at all. I do not suggest that the instruction itself was in error; indeed, it appears to have been a correct statement of Vermont law. The point is, rather, that the instruction reveals a deeper flaw: the fact that punitive damages are imposed by juries guided by little more than an admonition to do what they think is best. Because " '[t]he touchstone of due process is protection of the individual against arbitrary action of government,' " Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 331, 106 S.Ct. 662, 665, 88 L.Ed.2d 662 (1986), quoting Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 558, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 2976, 41 L.Ed.2d 935 (1974), I for one would look longer and harder at an award of punitive damages based on such skeletal guidance than I would at one situated within a range of penalties as to which responsible officials had deliberated and then agreed.

Since the Court correctly concludes that Browning-Ferris' challenge based on the Due Process Clause is not properly before us, however, I leave fuller discussion of these matters for another day.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).