The Case Against Punitive Damages in Civil Litigation

by JRO on October 16, 2013

Upon the conclusion of a civil lawsuit, a jury is often faced with the prospect of remunerating the plaintiff with one of two damages: compensatory damages and punitive damages. This is especially true in tort cases, which involve injurious harm by one party to another party. The punitive damages award seeks to further punish a defendant beyond actual damages caused as a way of sending a message to others who may engage in the same injurious behavior.

Often times during an appeals process, an appeals court will reduce or eliminate the punitive damages portion of a civil case award. This raises questions about whether punitive damages are necessary. There is a case to be made that such awards are necessary in certain cases where the extent of “bad conduct” being punished was long-standing and ignored by the defendant even in the face of overwhelming evidence. These cases, however, represent a small minority of civil litigation suits. Generally, punitive damages actually have more of a detrimental effect on altering future behavior than anything else.

The Development of Punitive Damages 

The concept of awarding punitive damages appears to have started as early as the late 1950s in the case Comunale v. Traders & General Ins. Co. Although in existence for nearly six decades, punitive awards associated with tort cases — although they may be seen in other forms of civil litigation — constitute between three to six percent of all cases, with an average median award of under $50,000.

Do Punitive Awards Deter Bad Behavior?

There are arguments within the legal community about the effectiveness of punitive damage awards as a behavioral deterrent. Punitive awards generally constitute such a low amount of the total award that it would be difficult to draw a correlation between the amount of awards given in civil cases and their effect on behavior.

There are exceptions with respect to large punitive damage awards. In 1994 Stella Liebeck was the plaintiff in a case against McDonalds Corporation involving burns she received on her lower body from coffee that was approximately 190 degrees. After attempts to recover $90,000 in damages associated with her medical expenses and pain and suffering — McDonald’s counter offered $800 although it had paid $500,000 in other cases — a New Mexico jury awarded $2.94 million in punitive damages. On appeal, the amount was reduced to $480,000 and Ms. Liebeck received an undisclosed amount even lower than that. McDonald’s changed its practices as a result of the case, placing a warning on their cups and lowering the temperature at which they brewed coffee.

The Case for Tort Reform

The Liebeck case was a rallying call for tort reform in the 1996 Presidential campaign, becoming a platform issue during the Republican Nomination Convention in San Diego. To this day, many believe that the small amount in damages awarded and the infrequency of these awards fails to support their need as a continued deterrent against a defendant’s misconduct.

Additionally, assigning liability through awards that properly compensate a plaintiff for their actual loss suffered may have a larger effect on deterring future behavior than adding excessive liability amounts that generally result in settlement delays.


Paul O’Connor, a freelance legal blogger based in Sacramento, CA, understands that civil litigation is a very complex area, one which needs substantial attention and potentially dramatic transformations. Those who need assistance navigating the waters of personal injury litigation should contact an established Los Angeles Personal Injury attorney.




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