Gasperini v. Center for Humanities, Inc.

Decision Date24 June 1996
Docket NumberNo. 95-719.,95-719.
Citation518 U.S. 415
CourtU.S. Supreme Court





Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion,post, p. 439. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Thomas, J., joined, post, p. 448.

Samuel A. Abady argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Jonathan S. Abady, Matthew D. Brinckerhoff, and Andrew Dwyer.

Theodore B. Olson argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., Douglas R. Cox, Mark Snyderman, and Francis A. Montbach.*

Justice Ginsburg, delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under the law of New York, appellate courts are empowered to review the size of jury verdicts and to order new trials when the jury's award "deviates materially from what would be reasonable compensation." N. Y. Civ. Prac. Law and Rules (CPLR) § 5501(c) (McKinney 1995). Under the Seventh Amendment, which governs proceedings in federal court, but not in state court, "the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law." U. S. Const., Amdt. 7.

The compatibility of these provisions, in an action based on New York law but tried in federal court by reason of the parties' diverse citizenship, is the issue we confront in this case. We hold that New York's law controlling compensation awards for excessiveness or inadequacy can be given effect, without detriment to the Seventh Amendment, if the review standard set out in CPLR § 5501(c) is applied by the federal trial court judge, with appellate control of the trial court's ruling limited to review for "abuse of discretion."


Petitioner William Gasperini, a journalist for CBS News and the Christian Science Monitor, began reporting on events in Central America in 1984. He earned his living primarily in radio and print media and only occasionally sold his photographic work. During the course of his seven-year stint in Central America, Gasperini took over 5,000 slide transparencies, depicting active war zones, political leaders, and scenes from daily life. In 1990, Gasperini agreed to supply his original color transparencies to The Center for Humanities, Inc. (Center) for use in an educational videotape, Conflict in Central America. Gasperini selected 300 of his slides for the Center; its videotape included 110 of them. The Center agreed to return the original transparencies, but upon the completion of the project, it could not find them.

Gasperini commenced suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, invoking the court's diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 1332.1 He alleged several state-law claims for relief, including breach of contract, conversion, and negligence. See App. 5-6. The Center conceded liability for the lost transparencies and the issue of damages was tried before a jury.

At trial, Gasperini's expert witness testified that the "industry standard" within the photographic publishing community valued a lost transparency at $1,500. See id. , at 227. This industry standard, the expert explained, represented the average license fee a commercial photograph could earn over the full course of the photographer's copyright, i. e., in Gasperini's case, his lifetime plus 50 years. See id. , at 228; see also 17 U. S. C. § 302(a). Gasperini estimated that his earnings from photography totaled just over $10,000 for the period from 1984 through 1993. He also testified that he intended to produce a book containing his best photographs from Central America. See App. 175.

After a three-day trial, the jury awarded Gasperini $450,000 in compensatory damages. This sum, the jury foreperson announced, "is $1500 each, for 300 slides." Id. , at 313. Moving for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, the Center attacked the verdict on various grounds, including excessiveness. Without comment, the District Court denied the motion. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 12a.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated the judgment entered on the jury's verdict. 66 F. 3d 427 (1995). Mindful that New York law governed the controversy, the Court of Appeals endeavored to apply CPLR § 5501(c), which instructs that, when a jury returns an itemized verdict, as the jury did in this case, the New York Appellate Division "shall determine that an award is excessive or inadequate if it deviates materially from what would be reasonable compensation." The Second Circuit's application of § 5501(c) as a check on the size of the jury's verdict followed Circuit precedent elaborated two weeks earlier in Consorti v. Armstrong World Industries, Inc., 64 F. 3d 781, superseded, 72 F. 3d 1003 (1995). Surveying Appellate Division decisions that reviewed damage awards for lost transparencies, the Second Circuit concluded that testimony on industry standard alone was insufficient to justify a verdict; prime among other factors warranting consideration were the uniqueness of the slides' subject matter and the photographer's earning level.2

Guided by Appellate Division rulings, the Second Circuit held that the $450,000 verdict "materially deviates from what is reasonable compensation." 66 F. 3d, at 431. Some of Gasperini's transparencies, the Second Circuit recognized, were unique, notably those capturing combat situations in which Gasperini was the only photographer present. Id. , at 429. But others "depicted either generic scenes or events at which other professional photojournalists were present." Id. , at 431. No more than 50 slides merited a $1,500 award, the court concluded, after "giving Gasperini every benefit of the doubt." Ibid. Absent evidence showing significant earnings from photographic endeavors or concrete plans to publish a book, the court further determined, any damage award above $100 each for the remaining slides would be excessive. Remittiturs "present difficult problems for appellate courts," the Second Circuit acknowledged, for court of appeals judges review the evidence from "a cold paper record." Ibid. Nevertheless, the Second Circuit set aside the $450,000 verdict and ordered a new trial, unless Gasperini agreed to an award of $100,000.

This case presents an important question regarding the standard a federal court uses to measure the alleged excessiveness of a jury's verdict in an action for damages based on state law. We therefore granted certiorari. 516 U. S. 1086 (1996).


Before 1986, state and federal courts in New York generally invoked the same judge-made formulation in responding to excessiveness attacks on jury verdicts: courts would not disturb an award unless the amount was so exorbitant that it "shocked the conscience of the court." See Consorti, 72 F. 3d, at 1012-1013 (collecting cases). As described by the Second Circuit:

"The standard for determining excessiveness and the appropriateness of remittitur in New York is somewhat ambiguous. Prior to 1986, New York law employed the same standard as the federal courts, see Matthews v. CTI Container Transport Int'l Inc., 871 F. 2d 270, 278 (2d Cir. 1989), which authorized remittitur only if the jury's verdict was so excessive that it `shocked the conscience of the court.' " Id. , at 1012.

See also D. Siegel, Practice Commentaries C5501:10, reprinted in 7B McKinney's Consolidated Laws of New York Ann., p. 25 (1995) ("conventional standard for altering the verdict was that its sum was so great or so small that it `shocked the conscience' of the court").

In both state and federal courts, trial judges made the excessiveness assessment in the first instance, and appellate judges ordinarily deferred to the trial court's judgment. See, e. g., McAllister v. Adam Packing Corp., 66 App. Div. 2d 975, 976, 412 N. Y. S. 2d 50, 52 (3d Dept. 1978) ("The trial court's determination as to the adequacy of the jury verdict will only be disturbed by an appellate court where it can be said that the trial court's exercise of discretion was not reasonably grounded."); Martell v. Boardwalk Enterprises, Inc., 748 F. 2d 740, 750 (CA2 1984) ("The trial court's refusal to set aside or reduce a jury award will be overturned only for abuse of discretion.").

In 1986, as part of a series of tort reform measures,3 New York codified a standard for judicial review of the size of jury awards. Placed in CPLR § 5501(c), the prescription reads:

"In reviewing a money judgment . . . in which it is contended that the award is excessive or inadequate and that a new trial should have been granted unless a stipulation is entered to a different award, the appellate division shall determine that an award is excessive or inadequate if it deviates materially from what would be reasonable compensation."4

As stated in Legislative Findings and Declarations accompanying New York's adoption of the "deviates materially" formulation, the lawmakers found the "shock the conscience" test an insufficient check on damage awards; the legislature therefore installed a standard "inviting more careful appellate scrutiny." Ch. 266, 1986 N. Y. Laws 470 (McKinney). At the same time, the legislature instructed the Appellate Division, in amended § 5522, to state the reasons for the court's rulings on the size of verdicts, and the factors the court considered in complying with § 5501(c).5 In his signing statement, then-Governor Mario Cuomo emphasized that the CPLR amendments were meant to rachet up the review standard: "This will assure greater scrutiny of the amount of verdicts and promote greater stability in the tort system and greater fairness for similarly situated defenda...

To continue reading

Request your trial
2090 cases
  • Ferrara v. Ryen Munro & Tripping Gnome Farm, LLC
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
    • March 23, 2018" Liberty Synergistics Inc. v. Microflo Ltd. , 718 F.3d 138, 152 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities, Inc. , 518 U.S. 415, 427, 116 S.Ct. 2211, 135 L.Ed.2d 659 (1996) ). This Court recognizes the Erie doctrine and, consequently, applies the substantive law of the st......
  • In re Allergan Biocell Textured Breast Implant Prods. Liab. Litig.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of New Jersey
    • March 19, 2021
    ...federal courts sitting in diversity apply state substantive law and federal procedural law." Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities , 518 U.S. 415, 427, 116 S.Ct. 2211, 135 L.Ed.2d 659 (1996). "A state is not without law save as its highest court has declared it." West v. AT&T Co. , 311 U.S. 223,......
  • Horton Homes, Inc. v. Brooks
    • United States
    • Alabama Supreme Court
    • November 30, 2001
    ...fact, the level of punitive damages is not really a "fact" "tried" by the jury.' Gasperini v. Center for Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 459, 116 S.Ct. 2211, 135 L.Ed.2d 659 (1996) (SCALIA, J., dissenting). Because the jury's award of punitive damages does not constitute a finding of `fact,......
  • Green v. Cosby
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts
    • October 9, 2015
    ...courts sitting in diversity apply state substantive law and federal procedural law." Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities, Inc. , 518 U.S. 415, 427, 116 S.Ct. 2211, 135 L.Ed.2d 659 (1996). The court "determine[s] which state's law applies by applying the choice of law rules of the forum state,"......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 firm's commentaries
  • CPAP MDL Overinflates Plaintiffs’ Claims
    • United States
    • LexBlog United States
    • December 4, 2023
    ...Court: Diversity jurisdiction “does not carry with it generation of rules of substantive law.” Gasperini v. Center for Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 426 (1996). “[A] federal court is not free to apply a different rule however desirable it may believe it to be, and even though it may think......
38 books & journal articles
  • Who Should Decide? Judges and Juries in Trademark Dilution Actions - David S. Welkowitz
    • United States
    • Mercer University School of Law Mercer Law Reviews No. 63-2, January 2012
    • Invalid date
    ...482-83 (1935) (holding remittitur consistent with reexamination clause, but not additur); see also Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 43233 (1996) (discussing interplay of reexamination clause and state law). That provision is not central to this analysis. exists.31 This ......
    • United States
    • Notre Dame Law Review Vol. 98 No. 1, November 2022
    • November 1, 2022
    ...that different rules govern the foreign court's interpretation" of a foreign statute). (160) E.g., Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humans., Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 426-27 (161) 28 U.S.C. [section] 1652 (2018) (providing for the use of state law "except where the Constitution or treaties of the United Sta......
  • An Analysis of Remittitur's Effects on the Timing to File a Notice of Appeal.
    • United States
    • Suffolk University Law Review Vol. 53 No. 3, June 2020
    • June 22, 2020
    ...judge's decision intrudes on the jury's decision-making authority and the party's Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial. See id. (38.) 518 U.S. 415 (39.) See id. at 417 (approving line of circuit court decisions recognizing appellate review confined to abuse of discretion); see also Fried......
  • State farm and punitive damages: call the jury back.
    • United States
    • The Journal of High Technology Law Vol. 5 No. 1, January 2005
    • January 1, 2005
    ...History of the Seventh Amendment, 57 MINN. L. REV. 639, 672 n.89 (1973). (34.) See Gasperini v. Center for Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 450-51 (1996) (Scalia, J., (35.) See the Anti-federalist writings quoted in Scheiner, supra note 32, at 145-57 and Amar, The Bill Of Rights As A Constit......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT