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Top court decision ends State Farm lawsuit

Utahns will still get $9 million award in decades-old fight

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision this week not to review a $9 million judgment against State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. closes the book on a decades-long lawsuit against the insurance giant.

Curtis and Inez Campbell sued State Farm after its refusal to settle a claim stemming from a fatal 1981 car accident in Sardine Canyon. The Cache County couple was initially awarded $145 million in punitive damages, but the nation's high court overturned the amount in April 2003 as unconstitutionally excessive.

The case returned to the Utah Supreme Court, which set the $9 million punitive-damage award in April of this year. State Farm again appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined on Monday to consider the case a second time.

"I am immensely relieved," Inez Campbell, 74, said through her attorney, Rich Humpherys. "Although Curtis did not live long enough to see the end, I did, and I know he would be thrilled with the outcome."

Curtis Campbell died in December 2001 after an extended battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 83.

"This was never about money to Curtis or me," Inez Campbell added. "It was always the principle of the thing."

The case garnered national interest when it reached the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The high court's decision to strike down the original $145 million award marked only the second time the court has overturned a jury award as excessive.

Again Monday, the case was the topic of conversation outside Utah. A well-read U.S. Supreme Court Web log, maintained by a Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in Supreme Court litigation, termed the court's refusal to hear the matter "perhaps the most significant case on the long list of denials of review."

Lyle Denniston, a Boston Globe reporter who covers the Supreme Court and a Georgetown University law professor, said he made the statement because the case was, in his opinion, the most surprising to be included on the list of nearly 1,800 cases denied review.

"The State Farm case looked to me . . . as if it were an almost certain grant, because it appeared to me that the Utah Supreme Court had deviated quite significantly from what the (U.S.) Supreme Court had said when it ruled on it the first time," he said.

The Utah Supreme Court relied on some novel legal arguments to support its $9 million award, Denniston said, which he expected to warrant review by the nation's high court.

State Farm spokeswoman Maria Taylor said Tuesday the company was disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision not to review the case. However, she noted, the announcement "in no way diminishes the importance of the landmark decision that the U.S. Supreme Court made in April 2003."

In ruling on the matter last year, the divided court said punitive damage awards must generally be capped at no more than 10 times the actual harm suffered by defendants, rather than the 145-to-1 ratio present in the Campbell case.

One man was killed and another permanently disabled in the 1981 accident, for which jurors found Curtis Campbell responsible and ordered him to pay some $186,000. State Farm had previously rejected a proposed $50,000 and forced Curtis Campbell to proceed to trial, which was the basis of the ongoing lawsuit alleging bad faith and fraud on State Farm's part.

Taylor said State Farm would now move toward paying the $9 million judgment. It will be split among Inez Campbell and her late husband's estate, the accident victims, attorneys' fees and taxes.