Bangeura v. Taylor, 312 Md. 609, 624 (1988)

This case discusses the standard to be applied by a trial judge to determine whether a new trial should be granted because of an excessive verdict. (Interestingly, the defendant’s lawyers were the Law Office of Benjamin L. Cardin, now a U.S. Senator.)

Facts of Bangeurapunitivedamages

The facts of Bangeura are disturbing to say the least. The plaintiff/appellee was raped by the defendant/appellant while babysitting in his home in Baltimore in 1983. Criminal charges of rape and assault were brought against defendant. Defendant entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to prison. Plaintiff brought a civil case against the defendant, who did not respond to Plaintiff’s complaint as required under the Maryland Rules (most likely because he was in jail). Eventually, he got a lawyer to respond and the case went to trial and the jury awarded the Plaintiff $5,000,000, which the judge reduced to $4 million because of a pleading technicality. (Of course, the real problem is collecting a $4 million judgment from a prisoner who makes a few dollars a day on a prison salary.) Defendant's attorney appealed Judge Joseph Pines ruling regarding a pretrial motion (Judge Pines is now a mediator/arbitrator who handles a number of personal injury cases for lawyers who seek a “trial” without the time and expense of going through the judicial system) and Judge Phillip Fairbanks (since retired) decision not to grant defendant’s remittitur motion.

The Court of Appeals found that Judge Pines did not err in refusing to grant a pretrial motion to set aside defendant’s earlier default, establishing liability and making the jury trial simply a question of damages. More central to the point addressed in our response to the motion for remittitur in the Woullard case, the court reaffirmed the standard for remittitur on appeal to be applied by a trial judge in determining whether a new trial should be granted on the ground of excessiveness of the verdict: whether the verdict is "grossly excessive," or "shocks the conscience of the court," or is "inordinate" or "outrageously excessive," or even simply "excessive." Id. at 624, citing Conklin v. Schillinger, supra, 255 Md. at 69, 257 A.2d 187; Dagnello v. Long Island Railroad Co., 289 F.2d 797, 802 (2d Cir.1961). The court ruled that this same standard applies to punitive damages that were awarded in this case.

Looking at the Law that Was Applied

In this case, Judge Fairbanks refused to consider the motion for remittitur because it could potentially lead to a new trial. The judge felt he could allow for such a possibility because he had already denied defendant’s attorney's motion for a new trial. While the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (Maryland’s intermediate court) affirmed the trial court on appeal, Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, overturned the Court of Special Appeals and ordered the trial court consider defendant’s motion for remittitur. The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court had an obligation to consider the motion for remittitur because it was separate and part from the earlier unrelated motion for a new trial.

While we have no evidence of what eventually happened in this case after the Court’s ruling, it is reasonable to assume two things: (1) Judge Fairbanks denied defendant’s motion for remittitur (all he was required to do was “consider” it, and (2) the convicted rapist was not able to pay a $4 million judgment (or anything close to it).

Nine years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue presented in this case from the perspective of the constitutionality of punitive damages in BWW of North America v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996). The Supreme Court found that punitive damage awards are subject to limits under the Due Process Clause (5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution). The Court evaluated three "guideposts" to conclude that the $ 2 million dollar punitive damage award against BMW in that case transcended constitutional limits under the Due Process Clause: (1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct; (2) the disparity between the harm or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damage award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damage award and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases. Id. at 574-75.

In 1998, the Maryland Court of Appeals discussed the BMW case in Bowden v. Caldor, Inc., 350 Md. 4 (1998). In Bowden, plaintiff, a sixteen year-old, alleged that fellow employees at Caldor accused him of stealing money from the store, detained him until he signed a statement, made racial slurs to him, and then had him arrested. (Interestingly, a year after this opinion Caldor - remember them? - went into bankruptcy. Of course, its problems extended well beyond this particular case).

The criminal charges against the plaintiff were dismissed by a juvenile court for lack of evidence. Plaintiff hired a lawyer and filed suit against the employer and was awarded $110,000 in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. Defendant's lawyer appealed the punitive damages award and it was vacated on appeal (in other words, the case was sent back to the trial court to try the case again on the issue of the amount of punitive damages).

Incredibly, after a second trial on punitive damages, the plaintiff was awarded $9 million (Caldor failed to heed the “watch what you wish for” cliché). The trial court entered a remittitur to $350,000, concluding that the award could not exceed the original award because of the successful appeal. On appeal, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that while in criminal cases, a harsher sentence could not be imposed on retrial following a successful appeal, the purpose of that rule was to avoid a chilling effect on appeals and did not apply to civil tort actions for money damages. The court held that the trial court's determination that the award was excessive was not necessarily error, but reversed because the logic behind the reduction was error. Like Bangeura, the plaintiff’s victory in Bowden was likely illusory in that the trial court almost certainly reduced the punitive damage award back to the original reduction.

Punitive Damages Against Drunk Drivers in Maryland?

Speaking of punitive damages, one question clients frequently ask is whether you can recover punitive damages in an auto accident case if the other driver is intoxicated. Courts have used a variety of terms setting forth the degree of misconduct required to bring punitive damages claim against a drunk driver in a personal injury case. Plaintiffs’ lawyers in Maryland have argued that driving while intoxicated supports an award of punitive damages should be allowed to a party injured as a result of a motor vehicle accident based upon a showing that the driver's conduct was reckless, wanton, willful, or grossly negligent.


Many courts around the country have agreed. These courts have ruled that malicious conduct would also support the recovery of punitive damages, but a showing of malice was not necessary, or that proof of a wanton or willful conduct is sufficient.

Unfortunately, Maryland courts have disagreed, finding that punitive damages must be supported by a showing that the conduct of the intoxicated driver was malicious, or the result of evil motive, ill will, or the like. This issue was addressed in Komornik v. Sparks, 331 Md. 720 (1993). The court in Komornik asserted that there were no facts presented from which a jury would be permitted to infer that the defendant's conduct was characterized by evil motive, intent to injure, ill will, or fraud, the terms used to describe "actual malice" in Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Zenobia, 325 Md. 420 (1992), Maryland’s landmark opinion on punitive damages. According to the Maryland Court of Appeals, even if defendant has actual knowledge that he/she was intoxicated, if the defendant was not acting with “actual malice” in driving while drunk, which is virtually impossible to show, punitive damages do not apply.

In an effort to overturn Komornik, House Bill 1334 was introduced in the Maryland House of Delegates in 2000. If passed, this bill would have allowed for punitive damages against “high risk” drunk drivers, defined by the bill as persons driving at a blood alcohol level of 0.16 or higher or driving on a license suspended for a drunk driving offense. In spite of support by many victims groups and many Maryland personal injury lawyers, the bill failed.

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