NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Report on Juries' Punitive Awards Raises Questions

August 6, 2001

One of the objectives of tort reformers is to rein in absurd punitive damage awards when plaintiffs win. Many critics claim that juries frequently make awards that are out of all proportion to damages sustained.

But a new study conducted by two Cornell University professors, Theodore Eisenberg and Martin T. Wells, along with three analysts from the National Center for State Courts, claims that judges award punitive damages about as often as juries and in about the same proportion.

  • According to the study, which is to be published in the Cornell Law Review, both judges and juries awarded punitive damages in about 4 percent of the cases where plaintiffs won.
  • When judges and juries did award punitive damages, they generally did so in roughly the same proportion to compensatory damages.

But different types of cases elicited different punitive damage responses from judges and juries.

  • Judges were far more likely than juries to award punitive damages in premises liability cases -- 10.8 percent of the time versus 1.1 percent for juries.
  • Juries awarded punitive damages in 7.3 percent of rental/lease disputes -- versus 0.7 percent for judges.

But other experts in the field disagree with the findings. "It would be contrary to the results I have found," says W. Kip Viscusi, a law and economics professor at Harvard Law School, "and it seems inconsistent with the fact that in the real world you see judges reducing punitive awards by juries."

The study did admit that there were rare extreme punitive damage awards by judges and juries.

Victor E. Schwartz of the American Tort Reform Association say it is such occasional extreme jury verdicts that prove the need for limits on punitive damages.

Source: William Glaberson, "A Study's Verdict: Jury Awards Are Not Out of Control," New York Times, August 6, 2001.


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