Monday, March 31, 2008
The New York Times has an interesting story on Italians’ view of punitive damages. Apparently they are "so offensive to Italian notions of justice" that Italy refuses to enforce judgements containing punitive damages. Here’s an excerpt of the full article, which begins by highlighting an Alabama woman who sued when her 15-year old’s motorcycle helmet failed:
Most of the rest of the world views the idea of punitive damages with alarm. As the Italian court explained, private lawsuits brought by injured people should have only one goal — compensation for a loss. Allowing separate awards meant to punish the defendant, foreign courts say, is a terrible idea.
Punishments, they say, should be meted out only by the criminal justice system, with its elaborate due process protections and disinterested prosecutors. It is not fair, they add, to give plaintiffs a windfall beyond what they have lost. And the ad hoc opinions of a jury, they say, are a poor substitute for the considered judgments of government safety regulators.
Some common-law countries do allow punitive damages, though in limited circumstances and modest amounts. In the United States, by contrast, enormous punitive awards are relatively common, although they are often reduced or eliminated on appeal. Last month, for instance, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the Exxon Valdez case, where a jury’s initial award of $5 billion was later reduced to $2.5 billion.
Still, such awards terrify foreign courts.
"The U.S. practice of permitting a lay jury to exercise largely discretionary judgment with limited constraints in awarding punitive damages is regarded almost universally outside the U.S. with a high degree of disfavor," said Gary Born, an American lawyer who works in London.
Foreign lawyers and judges are quick to cite particularly large American awards. Julian Lew, a barrister in London, recalled a Mississippi court’s $400 million punitive award against a Canadian company in 1995 with scorn. "It did bring America into total and utter contempt around the world," Mr. Lew said.
Yet there are signs that the gap between the United States and the rest of the world is narrowing, as American courts and legislatures start to limit punitive awards and other countries start to experiment with them.
Punitive damages have deep roots in American and English common law, but their nature has changed here over time. "Until well into the 19th century," Justice John Paul Stevens of the Supreme Court wrote in 2001, "punitive damages frequently operated to compensate for intangible injuries" like pain and suffering or emotional distress.
These days, driven by the structure of the American civil justice system, entrepreneurial plaintiffs’ lawyers and the populism they embrace, punitive damages are used to send messages to large corporations, to fill gaps in regulation and to reward successful plaintiffs with multiples of what they have lost. Distinctive features of the American legal system — civil juries, class actions, contingency fees and the requirement that each side bear its own lawyers’ fees — all play a role in amplifying punitive damages.