De Novo Review For Illinois Claim That Punitive Damages Are Unconstitutional

Eighteen years of litigation culminated in a dispute over punitive damages in the Illinois Supreme Court. An excavating company was picketed by the union. The excavating company claimed the picketers spread false information about the company. So the company sued for libel, tortious interference with contract, and the like. At a bench trial, the company won a modest compensatory award, but rang the bell on punitives.

At a bench trial, the company won $4,680 in compensatory damages and $525,000 in punitive damages. The appellate court lowered the punitives to $325,000.

In the Supreme Court, the question was the propriety of the punitive damage award. The first question was the proper standard of review. The company argued for abuse of discretion; the union argued for de novo review.

The Union won that battle. Relying on United States Supreme Court precedent, the Illinois court ruled that de novo review would “unify precedent” and “stabilize the law.” It made no difference, the court stated, that punitive damages in this case were awarded by a judge after a bench trial.

De novo review puts the result in the hands of the appellate court, and takes it away from juries and trial judges. So you like this opinion if you believe in the wisdom of an appellate panel over juries and trial judges.

(Caesura – This opinion must have resulted in some disappointed faces. The trial court awarded $525,000 in punitives. The appellate court reduced it to $325,000. The Illinois Supreme Court reduced it to $50,000. The compensatory damages were $4,680. So after 18 years of litigation, the total take was less than $55,000.)

Get the whole opinion in International Union of Operating Engineers v. Lowe Excavating Co. here.