Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, Inc. – Case Brief
Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, Inc., 563 N.W.2d 154 (Wis. 1997).
Facts: Steenberg (D) sold a mobile home to Jacque’s (P) neighbor. Steenberg asked Jacque for permission to move the home across P’s land several times and P refused each time. D ignored P’s command and hauled the home across P’s land after first plowing a path through the snow. P called the Sheriff and D was given a citation for $30. P sued D for trespass. The jury awarded P $1 in nominal damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The Court set aside the award for punitive damages on the grounds that Wisconsin law did not allow a punitive damage award unless the jury also awarded compensatory damages and P appealed.
Issue: Can a ruling of nominal damages support an award for punitive damages in an intentional trespass action?
Holding and Rule: Yes. In certain instances, the actual harm is not the damage done to the land, which may be minimal, but in the loss of the individual’s right to exclude others from his or her property. A private landowner has the right to exclude other from his land. This right however has no practical meaning if the State will not enforce it. Punitive damages may be used because the $30 fine imposed and the $1 nominal damages were not sufficient to deter D and to vindicate society’s interest in protection of property rights. The court held that the Barnard rationale did not support a refusal to allow punitive damages when the tort involved is intentional trespass and therefore created this exception.
Sunbursting: Retroactivity is usually justified as a reward for the litigant who has persevered in attacking an unsound rule. D argued that because it relied on the well-established Barnard rule at trial, the court’s holding was an exception to the Barnard rule and should not apply to this case. The court stated that sunbursting is an exception to the general rule referred to as the ‘Blackstonian Doctrine’ which provides that a decision which overrules precedent is accorded retroactive effect.
To avoid inequity when the court announces a new rule, the court has recognized exceptions to the Blackstonian Doctrine and used the device of prospective overruling, known as ‘sunbursting,’ to limit the effect of a newly announced rule when retroactive application would be inequitable. Prospective application of a judicial holding is a question of policy to be determined by the court. The court stated that it would not sunburst absent a compelling judicial reason for doing so.
To refuse to apply the new rule here would work an inequity on P that would be a greater injustice to P than the application of the new rule to D. The award of punitive damages in a particular case is within the discretion of the jury and will not be disturbed unless the verdict is so clearly excessive as to indicate passion and prejudice. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the court from imposing a ”grossly excessive” punishment on a tortfeasor. See BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore. The Due Process Clause dictates that an individual receive fair notice of the conduct that will subject him or her to punishment and the severity of the penalty that a state may impose.
Gore factors: The Supreme Court had recently clarified the three factors a court must consider when determining whether a punitive damage award violates the Due Process Clause: (1) the degree of reprehensibility of the conduct; (2) the disparity between the harm or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damage award; and (3) the difference between this remedy and the civil or criminal penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases. The most important factor of the reasonableness of a punitive damage award is the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct.
The court held that in this case, the wrong was D’s brazen, intentional trespass on P’s land. The degree of reprehensibility of D’s conduct supported the imposition of a substantial punitive award. The court had expressly rejected the use of a fixed multiplier, either a fixed ratio of compensatory to punitive damages or of criminal fine to punitive damages, to calculate the amount of reasonable punitive damages.
The court held that in this case the statute failed to deter D’s egregious misconduct. Without punitive damages, D has a financial incentive to trespass again. Punitive damages, by removing the profit from illegal activity, can help to deter such conduct. In order to effectively do this, punitive damages must be in excess of the profit created by the misconduct so that the defendant recognizes a loss. A $ 100,000 punitive damage award will not only give potential trespassers reason to pause before trespassing, it will also give aggrieved landowners reason to pursue a trespass action. The court was not willing to adopt a mathematical formula for awarding punitive damages and could not conclude that the $100,000 award to P is clearly excessive.
Disposition: Reversed and remanded.