Browning-Ferris Industries v. Kelco Disposal, Inc.

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492 U.S. 257 (1989), argued 18 Apr. 1989, decided 26 June 1989 by vote of 7 to 2; Blackmun for the Court, O’Connor and Stevens dissenting in part. In Browning-Ferris Industries, the Court considered whether the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment applies to punitive damage awards in civil cases between private parties. The issue arose in a case involving the waste disposal business in Burlington, Vermont. Plaintiffs sued Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) alleging that the company had attempted to drive them out of that business. The jury found for the plaintiffs and judgment was entered for more than $150,000 in treble compensatory damages and $6 million in punitive damages. On appeal to the Supreme Court, BFI argued that the punitive damages award was excessive and violated the Eighth Amendment, which reads: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments imposed.”

The Court held that the Eighth Amendment does not apply to awards of punitive damages in cases between private parties. Although the Eighth Amendment received little debate in the First Congress, the word “fine” was understood to mean a payment to a sovereign. The “undisputed purpose and history” of that amendment confirm the conclusion that it places no limits on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded to private parties. Rather, the amendment restricts the government's power to punish and deter individuals.

The Court left open two related issues. First, it did not decide whether the Excessive Fines Clause applies in civil cases brought by the government. Second, because the question was not properly presented, the Court did not decide whether the Due Process Clause limits a court's power to award punitive damages. However, in BMW of North America v. Virginia (1996) the justices for the first time held a punitive damage award was excessive under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The punitive damage award in this case was $2 million; the actual damage award for the precipitating injury was $4,000.

Daan Braveman

Subjects: Law.

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