The Frequency, Predictability and Proportionality of Punitive Damages in State Courts
24 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2009 Last revised: 30 Dec 2014
Date Written: July 14, 2009
The state of punitive damages in the United States has been a controversial topic for more than three decades, resulting in litigation reaching the U.S. Supreme Court and various state supreme courts numerous times. Various business advocacy groups have sought to drastically curb or eliminate punitive damages and are vigorously opposed by plaintiff lawyers and consumer groups. In a recent case decided by the Supreme Court, Exxon Shipping v. Baker (2008), the United States Supreme Court once again expressed concern about the relationship between punitive and compensatory damages and the predictability of punitive awards. A full understanding of the issues involved in the punitive damages controversy requires consideration of the causes of action, the magnitude of both compensatory and punitive claims, the ratios of these two outcomes, and a qualitative understanding of the nature of punitive awards. This article presents a profile of punitive damages awarded by juries using the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Civil Justice Survey of State Courts, 2005 supplemented by a more detailed sample of trial outcomes from verdict reports from eight states. The data show that punitive damages are seldom awarded in product liability, premises liability and medical malpractice lawsuits, and the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages is a complex matter not easily resolved without consideration of the underlying factual basis of the claim. The data also shed tentative light on why many requests for punitive damages are never put before juries.
Keywords: Punitive Damages, Torts
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