Sunday, August 6, 2017
James Henderson on the Impropriety of Punitive Damages in Mass Torts
Professor James Henderson (Cornell Law) has posted to SSRN his article, The Impropriety of Punitive Damages in Mass Torts, 52 Ga. L. Rev. (forthcoming). Here is the abstract:
Punitive damages have been around for centuries in classic one-on-one tort actions and are here to stay. Mass torts, of more recent origin and not without difficulties, have matured to the point that this article is comfortable referring to most of them as traditional. Notwithstanding the legitimacy of both institutions when employed separately, loud warning signals should sound when, as with drinking and driving, they are combined. Potentially destructive mixes of punitive damages and mass torts have, unfortunately, been prevalent in traditional, fault-based mass tort actions. The difficulties are mostly administrative. Although punitive damages are conceptually compatible with fault-based mass torts, courts administer punitive awards in ways that are so capricious as to generate gross unfairness and inefficiency. And if for that reason the warning signals should be loud in connection with punitive awards in traditional mass torts, they should be downright deafening if and when courts consider awarding punitives in what this article refers to as emerging, nontraditional, enterprise-liability-based forms of mass tort.
Given that these serious difficulties cannot be eliminated by marginal reforms, this article argues that punitive damages are manifestly inappropriate in, and must be eliminated from, all forms of mass tort. Of course, a broad proscription would require courts to overrule precedent in connection with traditional mass torts, and this article explains how this could be accomplished. By contrast, such a proscription would come early enough in the development of emerging forms of mass tort to nip punitive awards in the bud without the need to overrule longstanding precedent. Thus, if courts are going to eliminate punitive awards in mass torts, now is the time for them to act.