NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Judges More Likely Than Juries To Hand Down Punitive Awards

June 12, 2000

A new government study to be released this summer reaches the startling conclusion that juries are far more stingy than judges in imposing punitive damages. The Bureau of Justice Statistics within the Justice Department says in the report that only a tiny percentage of cases in state courts result in any punitive award.

  • Despite gargantuan figures awarded in a handful of cases, the majority of all punitive awards amount to less than $40,000.
  • The survey -- which reviewed the 10,728 state court injury trials in the nation's 75 largest counties -- found that punitive damages were imposed in only 162 cases, or 3.3 percent of the 4,879 trials won by plaintiffs.
  • Overall, judges found for plaintiffs 57 percent of the time, while juries ruled for the defendant 52 percent of the time.
  • Judges are three times more likely than juries to award punitive damages in the cases they hear.

Trials decided by a judge resulted in punitive damages 7.9 percent of the time -- compared with 2.5 percent for jury trials. Moreover, the median punitive award made by a judge was $75,000, nearly three times the $27,000 median amount imposed by a jury.

The findings stand on its head the prevailing assumption that juries are more easily swayed emotionally than judges and more readily give out grand awards.

Cornell Law School professor Theodore Eisenberg, who was engaged by the bureau to analyze the figures, called the results "simply staggering."

Source: Jess Bravin, "Surprise: Judges Hand Out Most Punitive Awards," Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2000.


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