Punitive Damages: From Myth to Theory

81 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2006

See all articles by Anthony J. Sebok

Anthony J. Sebok

Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law


In this article I argue that the current problem with punitive damages in the United States is not, as is popularly believed, that they are out of control and threatening the orderly function of the tort system. Punitive damages suffer from a different sort of crisis - courts now lack an adequate theory to explain to themselves, lawyers, and litigants the purpose of punitive damages. The argument contains the following steps. First, I illustrate that the dominant rationale in recent years for punitive damages has been efficient deterrence. Second, I argue that the current practice of punitive damages is ill-suited to the achievement of efficient deterrence, which explains why it has been so easy for critics of the tort system to characterize punitive damages as a failed branch of civil litigation. Third, I argue that the remaining significant non-deterrence theories of punitive damages (including the theory developed by the United States Supreme Court in a series of recent decisions) fail to provide an adequate theory of punitive damages. Fourth, I argue that the point of punitive damages can be understood as a form of private retribution, and I use the history of punitive damages in England and the United States as well as the work of the philosopher Jean Hampton to illustrate my point. Fifth, I argue that the theory of punitive damages as private retribution - which sounds odd to the modern ear - fits surprisingly well with modern theories of the tort system which view tort law as a system of civil recourse for citizens who have suffered wrongs in private law.

Keywords: Punitive Damages, Retribution, Deterrence, Torts

JEL Classification: K13, K41

Suggested Citation

Sebok, Anthony J., Punitive Damages: From Myth to Theory. Iowa Law Review, Vol. 92, 2007, Brooklyn Law School, Legal Studies Paper No. 59, Princeton Law and Public Affairs Working Paper No. 06-015, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=894380

Anthony J. Sebok (Contact Author)

Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law ( email )

55 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10003
United States

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