Stroud v. Lints, 20A04-0010-CV-458.

CourtCourt of Appeals of Indiana
Citation760 N.E.2d 1176
Docket NumberNo. 20A04-0010-CV-458.,20A04-0010-CV-458.
PartiesMatthew W. STROUD and Margaret A. Stroud, Appellants-Defendants, v. Trevor A. LINTS, Daniel M. Lints, and Vicki Lints, Individually and as Parents/Natural Guardians of Trevor A. Lints., Appellees-Plaintiffs.
Decision Date16 January 2002

Robert T. Sanders, III, Sanders, Pianowski, LLP, Elkhart, IN, Attorney for Appellants.

John D. Ulmer, Bodie J. Stegelmann, Yoder, Ainlay, Ulmer & Buckingham, LLP, Goshen, IN, Attorneys for Appellees.

OPINION

BARNES, Judge.

Case Summary

Matthew Stroud appeals the trial court's award of $500,000 in punitive damages against him in favor of Trevor Lints in Lints' action seeking recovery for injuries sustained in an automobile accident caused by Stroud. Lints cross-appeals the trial court's finding that he was twenty-five percent at fault for his injuries and that Stroud's mother was not liable for the punitive damages award. We affirm in all respects.

Issues

Stroud has listed six issues, but they may be restated as one basic issue: whether the punitive damages award is clearly excessive. Lints' two cross-appeal issues are:

I. whether Stroud's mother should have been held liable for the punitive damages award because she signed Stroud's driver's license application pursuant to Indiana Code Section 9-24-9-4(a); and

II. whether Stroud presented sufficient evidence that Lints was twenty-five percent comparatively at fault for his injuries.

Facts1

The facts most favorable to the judgment reveal that on July 23, 1996, high school classmates Stroud and Lints went to the Elkhart County Fair. They brought with them mixed drinks of Gatorade and vodka, which they both drank during the afternoon and evening. Despite the fact that he knew Stroud had been drinking, Lints asked Stroud for a ride home. Stroud began driving at a high speed on County Road 28. As he approached an intersection, he passed a stopped line of traffic, disregarded a stop sign, and collided with another vehicle while traveling an estimated ninety-four miles per hour. The two occupants of the other vehicle were killed. Lints suffered extensive injuries, including various skull fractures, fractures of both arms, lacerations, and a severe closed-head injury. He was in a coma for almost one week and remained hospitalized for approximately six weeks. A doctor later determined that Lints had a twenty-three percent permanent physical impairment of his whole person as a result of the accident. Lints also claims the head injury has resulted in continuing "cognitive inefficiencies," including memory, attention, and concentration problems. Record pp. 411, 580.

Stroud was charged with six criminal counts related to the accident, including one count of operating while intoxicated ("OWI") and causing serious bodily injury to Lints in violation of Indiana Code Section 9-30-5-4, a Class D felony. Stroud pled guilty to all six counts and was initially sentenced on June 12, 1997, to eight years of incarceration; he received three years on the count related to Lints, to be served concurrently with the eight-year sentences on the two counts of OWI resulting in death. On June 10, 1999, Stroud's petition for modification of his sentence was granted, which allowed him to serve the rest of his incarceration period on work release.

On June 10, 1998, Lints and his parents sued Stroud and his mother, who had signed Stroud's minor driver's license application. After a bench trial, the trial court entered judgment, without special findings, on September 12, 2000. It found Lints' total compensatory damages to be $1,842,000; however, it also found Lints was twenty-five percent at fault for his injuries and entered judgment against Stroud and his mother for $1,381,500 in compensatory damages. It also found Lints' parents were entitled to $100,000 in compensatory damages, after taking Lints' comparative fault into account. Finally, it assessed $500,000 in punitive damages against Stroud only. Stroud and Lints now both appeal.

Analysis
I. Punitive Damages

The standard of review for determining whether punitive damages were properly awarded is whether, considering only the probative evidence and the reasonable inferences supporting the judgment, without weighing evidence or assessing witness credibility, a reasonable trier of fact could find by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with malice, fraud, gross negligence or oppressiveness that was not the result of a mistake of fact or law, honest error of judgment, overzealousness, mere negligence, or other human failing. Executive Builders, Inc. v. Trisler, 741 N.E.2d 351, 360 (Ind. Ct.App.2000),trans. denied, cert. pending. Punitive damages may also be awarded upon a showing of willful and wanton misconduct. Mitchell v. Stevenson, 677 N.E.2d 551, 564 (Ind.Ct.App.1997),trans. denied. Stroud makes no argument that punitive damages were entirely inappropriate. He concedes, therefore, that some punitive damages were appropriate here; his argument is focused on the award's amount.

As to the standard of review as to the amount of punitive damages, numerous Indiana cases have discussed various factors to consider when reviewing the amount of punitive damages, but few have clearly articulated the level of deference given to a trial court's or jury's assessment as to the appropriate amount of such damages. Generally, Indiana courts will not reverse an award of punitive damages as being excessive unless the damages appear so unreasonable as to indicate that the fact finder was motivated by passion or prejudice. Archem, Inc. v. Simo, 549 N.E.2d 1054, 1061 (Ind.Ct.App.1990), trans. denied. A judgment awarding punitive damages that is a product of fair procedures is cloaked with a strong presumption of validity. Coachmen Industries, Inc. v. Dunn, 719 N.E.2d 1271, 1278 (Ind.Ct.App. 1999), trans. denied. Finally, we have stated that "[o]nce it has been determined that there is a legal basis upon which to premise an award of punitive damages, the amount of the award rests within the sound discretion of the [fact finder]." Arlington State Bank v. Colvin, 545 N.E.2d 572, 580 (Ind.Ct.App.1989) (emphasis added). Stroud makes no argument that the trial court was motivated by passion or prejudice, nor that unfair procedures were used in procuring the judgment. That being the case, the amount of the award rested within the trial court's sound discretion, and we will review the award for an abuse of that discretion. An abuse of discretion has occurred if the trial court's decision is against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances or the reasonable inferences therefrom, or if the trial court's decision is without reason or based upon impermissible reasons or considerations. DeVittorio v. Werker Bros., Inc., 634 N.E.2d 528, 530 (Ind.Ct.App.1994).

At oral argument, counsel for Stroud directed us to the recent Supreme Court case of Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., 532 U.S. 424, 121 S.Ct. 1678, 1685-86, 149 L.Ed.2d 674 (2001), where it was held that appellate courts should apply a de novo standard of review when reviewing whether a punitive damages award is excessive under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the parameters of BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 116 S.Ct. 1589, 134 L.Ed.2d 809 (1996). Stroud has not argued, however, that the punitive damages award in this case is constitutionally excessive. The Cooper opinion states that "[i]f no constitutional issue is raised, the role of the appellate court, at least in the federal system, is merely to review the trial court's determination under an abuse-of-discretion standard." 532 U.S. at 432, 121 S.Ct. at 1684. This is consistent with the Indiana common law standard for reviewing the amount of a punitive damages award and it is the standard we apply today.2

"The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer and thereby deter others from engaging in similar conduct." Bright v. Kuehl, 650 N.E.2d 311, 316 (Ind.Ct.App.1995). Three factors that we may consider when addressing whether an award of punitive damages is excessive are: (1) the degree of reprehensibility of the conduct at issue; (2) the disparity between the harm or potential harm suffered by the complaining party and the punitive damages the complaining party received; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages remedy and the civil and criminal penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases. Ford Motor Co. v. Ammerman, 705 N.E.2d 539, 561-62 (Ind.Ct.App.1999), (citing BMW, 517 U.S. at 574-75,116 S.Ct. at 1598-99), trans. denied, cert. denied, 529 U.S. 1021, 120 S.Ct. 1424, 146 L.Ed.2d 315 (2000). It has also been said, under Indiana common law, that there "are two primary factors which should be properly considered in reviewing an award of punitive damages: (1) the nature of the tort and the extent of the actual damages sustained; and (2) the economic wealth of the defendant." Bright, 650 N.E.2d at 316. We observe that part one of this test is actually two parts, and that it corresponds closely with the first two parts of the BMW test: the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct and the disparity between compensatory and punitive damages; thus, under Indiana law, the defendant's economic wealth is the only non-BMW factor to be considered by the fact finder.

The BMW opinion states that "[p]erhaps the most important indicium of the reasonableness of a punitive damages award is the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct." 517 U.S. at 575, 116 S.Ct. at 1599. The Court, in concluding that "none of the aggravating factors associated with particularly reprehensible conduct is present," noted inter alia that the harm BMW inflicted on the plaintiff was "purely economic in nature" and that "BMW's conduct evinced no indifference to or reckless disregard for the health and safety of others." Id. at 576, 116 S.Ct. at 1599....

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