California Supreme Court Overturns Rulings Limiting Punitive Damages

Amicus Brief Filed by Pillsbury & Coleman for United Policyholders Results in
Reinterpretation of Damage Awards in Two Landmark Cases.
June 17, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO (June 17, 2005) – The California Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings that could have a nationwide impact on how courts award punitive damages. Applying the argument offered in an amicus brief filed by Pillsbury & Coleman, LLP on behalf of United Policyholders, the California Supreme Court determined that previous rulings across the country severely limiting punitive damages were misinterpretations of a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. These rulings effectively lift the ceiling previously applied to punitive damages.

Courts across the country have almost uniformly applied a “single-digit” test to determine the ratio between punitive damages and compensatory damages, such that punitive damages could not exceed a ratio of 9 to 1. The California Supreme Court ruled in the case of Johnson v. Ford Motor Company and Simon v. San Paolo U.S. Holding Company, Inc. that this is a misinterpretation of the guidelines for awarding punitive damages under the principles laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., v. Campbell in 2003, The California Supreme Court, however, explained that Campbell did not support a uniformly applied single-digit test. The California Supreme Court said that punitive damages are expected to exceed single-digit ratios in many cases, but should not exceed them “to a significant degree.” This language was left for interpretation in future cases but clearly permits much larger punitive damage awards that could be 5 or 10 times as large as they were under the previous interpretations of Campbell.

“These rulings will reverberate across the country. “They rebalance the scales to properly assess punitive damages and mark a major victory for those seeking justice against fraudulent corporate behavior. Before this ruling, many corporations believed that they could justify reprehensible business practices because they thought that the penalty for fraudulent conduct was so small that it could simply be absorbed as a cost of doing business. These two cases will be a shock to their systems.”

About Pillsbury & Coleman

Pillsbury & Coleman, LLP is a San Francisco Bay Area law firm with more than 30 years of experience representing policyholders in claims against insurance companies, specializing in coverage disputes and bad faith litigation. Pillsbury & Coleman represents individuals with health, disability and life insurance claims, and businesses and individuals with liability and property insurance claims. Pillsbury & Coleman has represented all types of insureds from individuals and small businesses to large corporations and governmental entities. To date the firm has secured well over $500 million in verdicts and settlements on behalf of its clients. For more information, please visit

About United Policyholders

United Policyholders is a national, not-for-profit educational organization whose mission is to educate the public, legislators and the courts on insurance issues and consumer rights, and to assist policyholders in securing prompt and fair insurance settlements. For more information, visit