Should Punitive Damages Be Eliminated?

by JRO on February 15, 2013

Punitive damages are monetary damages that are awarded to a plaintiff to punish the defendant and to deter the defendant from engaging in similar conduct in the future. These exemplary damages are awarded to the plaintiff in addition to the actual damages awarded by either the jury or the judge if the right to a trial by jury has been waived. Awarded in civil lawsuits, punitive damages have been awarded in the court of law since the 1970’s and are meant to benefit society as a whole.

What Types of Conduct Might Lead to Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are seen as a way to send a message to the defendant, but they are also very controversial in both civil and product liability lawsuits. Because there is not a definitive definition of punitive damages, the wrongdoing that the defendant is found guilty of can vary. If the defendant acts intentionally or with malicious intent, they may be ordered to pay punitive damages. Some of the most common damaged awarded to plaintiffs are when the conduct can be justified as oppression, reckless, violent in nature, fraudulent, or malice. These non-compensatory damages are typically only rewarded to plaintiffs after compensatory damages are awarded.

Why Are Punitive Damages Unique in Civil Law?

Criminal law and civil law are different in many ways. One of the main reasons why punitive damages are unique and also controversial in civil law is because they are awarded in civil law but they mimic the awards that would be granted in a criminal case. Civil cases that are filed by plaintiffs in private civil lawsuits are typically involve granting awards that are compensatory in nature. Because punitive damages are non-compensatory in nature, they are similar to the judgments that are awarded in a criminal case. This is why punitive damages are often characterized as “quasi-criminal”.

Why Do Critics Believe that Punitive Damages Need to Be Eliminated?

There are both supporters and critics of punitive damages. While the supporters believe that these damages act as a compensatory award when the actual losses the plaintiff suffers cannot be described as a tangible harm, critics say that these quasi-criminal punishments are not fair or reasonable for today’s modern society. Critics say that these punishments, which are criminal in nature, should not be enforced on defendants who do not have the normal protection under the criminal court procedure.

Another critique that must be considered is the vagueness of the standards that are set to determine how much punitive damages should be awarded. While some states have developed new procedures and new definitions of what is considered eligible for punitive damages, the guidelines for assessing punitive damages are still very muddled and cloudy.

The Undeserved Financial Windfall Argument

These non-compensatory damages are justified because supporters believe that by awarding these damages, it benefits society in the future by deterring the defendant from harming or injuring another party in the future. Critics argue that awarding plaintiffs with undeserved financial compensation does not benefit society in any way. The public does not benefit from the plaintiff’s compensation and some states are requiring that these damages are awarded to the state for public good.

When justice and public good are considered, punitive damages will continue to be a controversial issue. Based on the vague classifications of damages, punitive damages should be eliminated. There is no proof that these damages do deter future misconduct and the idea of being awarded punitive damages may actually may society more litigious.

This piece was written by Michael Woodrow, a freelance writer who focuses on law, social justice, law and media, legal philosophy, the legal system, and other areas. Getting involved with the legal system often complicates one’s life in many ways; improving one’s record can often help with your job.




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