Tuesday, November 28, 2006

South Carolina Supreme Court affirms punitive damages award 6.82 times greater than actual damages

James v. Horace Mann Ins. Co., was a bad faith action arising out of a dog bite. James' dog bit Geiger, requiring Geiger to suffer injuries. When James submitted the claim to his insurance company, the adjuster erroneously told him that under South Carolina law negligence must be proven before liability payments for animal bites could be paid. This was incorrect because SC has adopted strict liability for dog bites. In the Geiger trial, a jury returned a verdict against James and awarded Geiger $50,500 in damages. the Insurance Company paid $25,000 of the judgment and James paid the remaining $25,500.

In the bad faith action, the jury awarded James $146,600 actual damages and $1,000,000 punitive damages. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed. The Court approved both the Gamble review and the Gore review of punitive damages. Key to affirming the award was the reprehensibility of the insurance company's conduct. The Adjuster repeatedly falsely represented the applicable law from the time he was assigned the claim, through Geiger's action. There was also evidence in the record that the Insurance Company denied the claim based on this false misrepresentation and that Geiger sued James based on this misrepresentation.

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