NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Punitive Damages in Civil Law

March 11, 1997

The role of punitive damages is supposed to be to punish miscreants and discourage wrongdoing. And in California, for instance, there must be "clear and convincing" evidence that a defendant is guilty of "oppression, fraud or malice."

But critics say claims for punitive awards are growing commonplace, generated by lawyers seeking only to increase their fees.

Studies done by the Pacific Research Institute reveal that:

  • In San Francisco Superior Court, punitive damages were claimed in 27 percent of cases where they were conceivably recoverable.
  • They were claimed in 39 percent of tort or contract suits against businesses and in 35 percent of suits against government agencies.

A study from the Association for California Tort Reform establishes that:

  • In San Diego County, plaintiffs wanted punitive damages in 60 percent of the suits filed against governments and in 41 percent of the cases against businesses.
  • In Los Angeles County, such damages were sought in 36 percent of suits against government agencies and in 50 percent of suits against businesses.

It is reported that Alabama is becoming notorious for punitive damage abuse -- with requests for punitive damages being included in suits in some jurisdictions almost automatically.

According to a survey by Yale Law School's George L. Priest:

  • Three small counties in Alabama accounted for 40 percent of all trial court punitive damage verdicts in the state.
  • They were claimed in 86 percent of cases in one county, 92 percent of the time in the second and 98 percent in the third.

Since 1985, 12 state legislatures have limited punitive damages.

Source: Perspective, "Pocketbook Punishment," Investor's Business Daily, March 11, 1997.


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