punitive damages, jury awards
Courts | Law | Torts
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 state supreme courts. Various business advocacy groups have sought to drastically curb or eliminate punitive damages while plaintiffs’ lawyers and consumer groups vigorously defend the use of punitive damages. State legislatures have responded with many substantive and procedural reforms over the years. Yet, in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, the United States Supreme Court, while approvingly citing empirical evidence indicating that there are “not mass-produced runaway awards” and that “by most accounts the median ratio of punitive to compensatory awards has remained less than 1:1, once again expressed concerns about punitive awards exceeding a single-digit ratio to 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 in 2005 using the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Civil Justice Survey of State Courts. We supplement the BJS survey with an additional sample of punitive damages claims from nine states in 2005. This additional database provides more details about the disputes and procedural matters associated with the trials. The data show that there are case-type patterns in the awarding of punitive damages that contradict claims about punitive awards, especially those involving product liability cases, and that the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages is a complex matter not easily resolved without consideration of the underlying factual bases of the claims.
Neil Vidmar and Mirya Holman, The Frequency, Predictability, and Proportionality of Jury Awards of Punitive Damages in State Courts in 2005: A New Audit, 43 Suffolk University Law Review 855-895 (2010).