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Md. appeals court affirms 20:1 punitive-damages ratio

Disparity did not violate due process, Court of Special Appeals says

A civil litigant’s right to due process was not violated when she was ordered to pay a punitive damages award 20 times greater than the amount assessed to compensate the victim of her defamatory actions, Maryland’s second-highest court ruled last week.

The Court of Special Appeals’ reported 3-0 decision stands in seeming contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in BMW of North America Inc. v. Gore that a punitive-damages ratio of 10:1 should generally be regarded as unconstitutionally excessive.

Maryland’s top court, the Court of Appeals, has not set a maximum but held in Bowden v. Caldor in 1998 that the ratio of punitive damages to base compensation in light of the defendant’s underlying wrong is a factor to be considered in setting damages.

Citing both BMW and Bowden, the Court of Special Appeals said the 20:1 ratio passed constitutional muster due to the “gravity of the wrong,” which included Raychel Harvey-Jones’ falsification of a police charging document to defame Susan Coronel. The court noted that counterfeiting a public document is a felony under Maryland law punishable by up to two years in prison.

“We are convinced that this case presents one of those situations contemplated by the Bowden Court where the ratio between compensatory damages and punitive damages is outweighed by other factors such as the gravity of the wrong and the need for deterrence,” Judge Donald E. Beachley wrote for the court.

“Here, Ms. Harvey-Jones orchestrated, and perpetuated, a defamatory attack on Ms. Coronel’s character,” added Beachley, joined by Judges Kathryn Grill Graeff and Christopher B. Kehoe. “Although Ms. Coronel did not sustain any physical injury, Ms. Harvey-Jones’ statements falsely suggested that Ms. Coronel was involved in criminal conduct.”

Though Harvey-Jones was not prosecuted for the falsification, which alleged Coronel had been charged with harassment, it was presumed to have been made as part of the civil defamation claim Coronel brought against Harvey-Jones in Baltimore County Circuit Court. When Harvey-Jones failed to contest the defamation claim, the circuit court awarded Coronel a $10,000 default judgment and $200,000 in punitive damages, prompting Harvey-Jones’ appeal that the 20:1 ratio was excessive.

“In short, although the Supreme Court observed that a single-digit ratio between compensatory and punitive damages generally satisfies due process, higher ratios may pass constitutional muster when the compensatory or economic damages are low, when the injury is hard to detect, or when the value of noneconomic harm is difficult to determine,” Beachley wrote.

“In defamation cases, actual harm is often difficult to prove, resulting in lower compensatory damages awards,” Beachley added. “Additionally, it can be challenging to detect the injury and determine the value of noneconomic harm. In these situations, a larger punitive damages award may be constitutionally sustainable, particularly as the degree of reprehensibility increases.”

As a result, the 20:1 ratio in this case “satisfies constitutional due process,” he wrote.

Harvey-Jones’ appellate attorney, Jamie Lee, declined to comment Monday on the decision and any plans to seek review by the Court of Appeals. Lee is with Silverman Thompson Slutkin White LLC in Baltimore.

Michael B. Hamburg, Coronel’s appellate attorney, did not return telephone and email messages seeking comment Monday. Hamburg is with Baumohl/Hamburg LLC in Baltimore.

When Harvey-Jones’ boyfriend, Michael Scott, began receiving harassing email and text messages, he assumed the sender was Coronel, his ex-girlfriend. Harvey-Jones fed this belief by sending Scott a text message in February 2016 stating that Coronel was the harasser and attached what appeared to be a charging document stating that she had been charged with harassment, according to Coronel’s lawsuit.

Scott’s private investigator, Steve Brown, whom he had hired after receiving the texts and emails, met with the police detective whose name was on the charging document. The detective, Larry Rogers, said the document was counterfeit and that Coronel had never been charged with harassment, according to the lawsuit.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the awards of compensatory and punitive damages in Raychel Harvey-Jones v. Susan Coronel, No. 1232 September Term 2017.

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