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Law School Case Brief

Huffman & Wright Logging Co. v. Wade - 317 Or. 445, 857 P.2d 101 (1993)

Rule:

If a tort permits liability for the content of speech, punitive damages are not recoverable. If a tort permits liability for speech-caused harm, then a defendant who requests it is entitled to an instruction limiting the tortious predicate for punitive damages to conduct not protected by the free speech provision of Oregon Const. art. I, § 8. If a tort permits liability for harm not caused by speech, but the defendant contends that Oregon Const. art. I, § 8, prohibits an award of punitive damages for the particular conduct involved, then a defendant who requests it likewise may be entitled to a limiting instruction.

Facts:

Huffman & Wright Logging Co. (“plaintiff”) was a private corporation operating a logging business. Defendants, environmental group members, participated in a demonstration wherein they climbed on, and chained themselves to, plaintiff’s logging equipment. While defendants were attached to the equipment, they made statements, sang songs, and chanted slogans relating to their beliefs about the need for greater environmental protection of the area; these actions rendered the plaintiff’s business inoperable. Thereafter, defendants were charged and convicted with criminal mischief. Subsequently, plaintiff filed a civil action against the defendants, praying for compensatory damages and punitive damages. Defendants conceded liability for compensatory damages, but denied liability for punitive damages. According to the defendants, Article I, Sections 8 and 26 of the Oregon Constitution and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States precluded the imposition of punitive damages for their actions. On the same ground, defendants later moved for partial summary judgment and for a directed verdict. The trial court denied each motion and submitted plaintiff's claim for punitive damages to the jury. Defendants did not request an instruction that would have limited the jury's consideration to punitive damages based on non-expressive conduct. The jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor, awarding $ 5,717.34 in compensatory damages and $ 25,000 in punitive damages. Defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the claim for punitive damages, continuing to assert the same constitutional theories. The trial court denied that motion and entered judgment for plaintiff. On appeal, defendants reiterated that punitive damages were constitutionally barred in the present case.

Issue:

Taking into consideration the circumstances of the case at hand, were punitive damages constitutionally barred?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of Oregon held that the award of punitive damages did not violate the defendants’ right to free speech under Oregon Const. art. I, § 8 and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, because their trespassory acts were "non-expressive." In so ruling, the court noted the jury could have found that the defendants' actions caused a disturbance of the corporation's possession of its personal property, wholly apart from any motivating opinion, underlying message, or accompanying speech. Further, the court noted that the defendants could have requested a jury instruction limiting the tortious predicate for punitive damages to conduct not protected by the free speech provisions, but failed to do so. The court held that the award of punitive damages did not interfere with the members' right to assemble in violation of Oregon Const. art. I, § 26, because such right did not include the right to disrupt another's possession of private property and the members' acts were not a petition to the government.

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