Well, the Texas Supreme Court is again dismantling victim’s remedies. But, this time, they are working against small ranchers. In Bennett and Bonham Corp. v. Reynolds, the court took away another jury verdict. This time it was a cattle theft case. The jury awarded $5,327 in actual losses and $1.25 million in punitive damages. The Supreme Court considered whether the punitive damages were too high in relation to the actual losses and said the amount was too high. The court found that the 235:1 ratio was too high.
Punitive damages are designed to punish a transgressor, beyond mere negligence. The Texas Supreme Court reversed the lower appeal court and found that Bennett’s trangsressions were more about the litigation than about the actual theft. The two ranching families were neighbors and nursed a long-time feud. Seventeen head of cattle strayed onto Bennett’s property. Bennett sold them. Bennett denied to Reynolds knowing anything about them and thus prolonged Reynolds’ discovery about the sale for some three months. Reynolds sued Bennett, who then counter-sued claiming Reynolds had made everything up.
The Court found that Bennett threatened a witness; attempted to bribe another witness; doctored some photos of the stolen cattle at auction; filed suit against a Reynolds ranch hand; and Bennett tried to meddle with Reynold’s registered brand. All pretty bad stuff.
But, the Supreme Court found these bad acts occurred during the litigation, not as part of the theft, So, in a technical ruling, the court found these bad acts essentially did not count for purposes of punitive damages. There were other ways of dealing with reprehensible litigation tactics, said the court.
In the Army, we have this marching song which we most often used to sing when we did physical training. On those long runs, someone would strike up, "We’re at it again, on the road….," we would wail. Well, the Texas Supremes are at it again….