Mathias v. Accor Economy Lodging, Inc.

347 F.3d 672 (2003)

Quick Summary

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Desiree Mathias and Burl Mathias (plaintiffs) sued Accor Economy Lodging, Inc., owner of Motel 6 (defendant), for ‘willful and wanton conduct’ after suffering bedbug bites at one of its motels. The trial jury awarded each plaintiff $5,000 in compensatory damages and $186,000 in punitive damages.

The issue before the appellate court was whether Motel 6’s actions justified punitive damages and if such damages were excessive.

The appellate court affirmed the jury’s decision, ruling that punitive damages were warranted due to the defendant’s reckless conduct and were not unconstitutional despite their size.

Facts of the Case

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Desiree Mathias and her brother Burl Mathias (plaintiffs) experienced an unpleasant encounter with bedbugs during their stay at a Motel 6, which is part of the Accor Economy Lodging, Inc. chain (defendant). Upon being bitten by bedbugs, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit claiming that Motel 6 was aware of the infestation yet chose to neglect it, thus demonstrating ‘willful and wanton conduct.’

The evidence revealed that the motel’s pest control service had discovered the infestation years earlier and recommended treatment for all rooms at a cost of $500, which the motel declined. Instead, the motel opted to move guests to different rooms when complaints arose and even attempted to misidentify the pests as ticks.

The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding them $5,000 each in compensatory damages and a substantial $186,000 each in punitive damages. The defendant challenged the punitive damages as excessive and appealed the decision.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Plaintiffs Desiree and Burl Mathias filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Motel 6.
  2. The jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages to the plaintiffs.
  3. Motel 6 appealed the decision, particularly contesting the punitive damages awarded.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon
  • Whether Accor Economy Lodging, Inc. engaged in ‘willful and wanton conduct’ by knowingly allowing a bedbug infestation at its Motel 6 property.
  • Whether the punitive damages awarded to the plaintiffs were excessive and unconstitutional.

Rule of Law

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In determining the liability for punitive damages under Illinois law, conduct must be deemed ‘willful and wanton,’ signifying a deliberate disregard for the safety or rights of others. Additionally, punitive damages must be proportional to the wrongfulness of the defendant’s actions and adhere to due process constraints as outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The appellate court found ample evidence of reckless behavior by Motel 6, including refusal to treat known bedbug infestations and misleading guests about the nature of the pests. The court held that such actions constituted ‘willful and wanton conduct,’ justifying punitive damages under Illinois law.

The court also concluded that despite the high ratio of punitive to compensatory damages, they were not excessive due to the modest compensatory damages for non-economic harms, potential profitability from the defendant’s misconduct, and deterrent effect against future wrongdoing.

The court further reasoned that Motel 6’s wealth could influence its litigation strategy to deter plaintiffs, justifying higher punitive damages to enable plaintiffs to pursue justice.

Ultimately, the court affirmed that punitive damages served multiple purposes: punishing wrongful acts, compensating for intangible injuries, deterring misconduct, and ensuring access to legal recourse despite economic disparities.


Conclusion Icon

The appellate court affirmed the jury’s award of punitive damages, deeming them appropriate and constitutional given the circumstances of the case.

Key Takeaways

Takeaway Icon
  1. Punitive damages may be awarded for ‘willful and wanton conduct’ under Illinois law.
  2. Punitive damages must be proportional to the harm caused but can exceed single-digit multipliers of compensatory damages in certain circumstances.
  3. A defendant’s wealth may be considered when assessing punitive damages to ensure plaintiffs can feasibly seek legal redress against well-resourced defendants.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What determines the classification of conduct as 'willful and wanton' in tort law?

‘Willful and wanton’ conduct in tort law is determined when an individual or entity acts with a conscious disregard or utter indifference to the safety and rights of others. This goes beyond mere negligence; it’s a more severe form of misconduct that shows an actual or deliberate intention to harm or an evident indifference to the probable consequences of actions taken.

  • For example: A factory owner, fully aware that a machine is defective and could cause serious injury, decides not to repair it to save costs, resulting in an employee’s injury.

How do courts evaluate whether punitive damages are excessive?

Courts evaluate whether punitive damages are excessive by considering the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct, the disparity between the actual harm suffered and the punitive damages awarded, and the difference between the punitive damages awarded and civil penalties authorized in similar cases. This assessment ensures that punitive damages fulfill their purpose—punishment and deterrence—without infringing on due process.

In what ways can punitive damages serve purposes other than retribution?

Punitive damages serve not only as retribution but also as a deterrent discouraging both the defendant and others from engaging in similar conduct in the future. They can act as a mechanism for society to express condemnation of egregious behavior and provide some measure of solace to victims whose injuries are not always adequately compensated through compensatory damages alone.

  • For example: A car manufacturer who knowingly sells vehicles with faulty brakes may be subject to punitive damages to dissuade other manufacturers from prioritizing profit over public safety.


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