Punitive Damages

The old lady who spilled her hot coffee, the tobacco companies newest judgment, etc. etc. The list goes on of plaintiffs receiving enormous punitive damages. Should punitive damages be limited?

Regardless of the amount, I see no reason for the plaintiff to be the recipient of the punitive damamges. Compensatory, yes. Payment for actual suffering, time off from work, medical bills, etc. certainly should go to the injured party. I can even tolerate cash awards as a payment for emotional suffering (although I can’t see how a wad of cash can compensate for emotional loss. I mean, if somebody kills your wife, I would think putting a dollar value on what she meant to you cheapens her memory. And you always see the people say how it’s “not about the money” as they sue for millions of dollars. Hey, if it’s not about money, don’t ask for money!)

But why should the injured party receive the $$$ if a jury decides a company desrves to be punished? This just perpetuates the judgement-as-lotto mentality. Of course, the trial lawyers cash in big time on these awards, so don’t expect them to balk.

In general I do think punitive damages are too large. Thankfully, many get reduced on appeal. But this begs the question of why these awards are so large to begin with. If the appeals courts generally reduce the award, it must have been to big to begin with, right? Something should be done to place limits from the get-go, rather than after costly appeals.

And quit giving these awards to the plaintiffs and lawyers!

Eh - what divemaster said.

Although it should be said in all fairness that the lady with the hot coffee had a better case than it sounds like on the face of it (does that make sense ?) - something I learned form the SDMB.

This trend is showing up in European jurisdictions, and it’s scary as all hell. I’ve got nothing against dealing out heavy fines to anyone putting someone else’s life & limb in jeopardy, but use that money to ease the tax burden for the rest of us. (Yeah, fat chance).

Did anyone notice the aftermath of the Concorde ? Instant lawsuit against Air France, on the off chance that it might somehow come under US jurisdiction because the plane was headed for America - and thus gigantic compensations could be awarded. Sigh.

And we’ve just got the first smoker suing the tobacco companies, claiming that he’d been living on a deserted island or something and thus wasn’t informed that smoking could be dangerous. Of course, all precedence hereabouts tell you that it’s your own job as consumer to keep yourself informed of any foreseeable consequences of your purchase.

So he’ll be laughed out of court, obviously, but not without getting his 15 minutes of fame, an undeserved reputation of the heroic little man battling the faceless big corporations and, of course, adding a little extra to the caseload of the courts. Sigh again.

Nope, punitive damages doesen’t sound like a good idea to me.

S. Norman


so, it sounds just fine that a corporation could continue to do something that causes harm to people as long as it conituies to compensates folk just for their injuries?

Let’s review. In our system of justice, (both criminal and civil) we treat premeditated acts more seriously than accidents. Accidents which seem to be preventable are treated more seriously than ‘act of God’ types of things, so, some one deliberately running you down in a car would have a more serious consequence than some one driving drunk, although they would have a more serious consequence than the person who’s brakes failed suddenly. But what if they’d KNOWN their brakes were faulty and continued to drive anyway? you got it, more serious consequences.

Corporations cannot be jailed. (tho’ CEO 's can rarely does it happen). Punishments for corporations who act illegally or irresponsibly are monetary. The Government fines them for illegal actions, private people sue to recover damages. It should actually follow then, that a corporation who acts in a totally premediated and irresponsible manner should actually suffer more consequences than the corp who “has an accident”.

That’s what punitive damages are generally awarded after a corp has done something wrong, found out about it, and CONTINUED TO DO IT, even though they know it causes harm. the McDonald’s case was a case in point. the corp had many injuries linked to burns from their coffee and yet they didn’t take the simple step of lowering the temperature. the damages originally awarded in the case amounted to the amount of PROFIT from their coffee sales alone for a period of time. seems fair to me. If your dog bites me, you’re required to compensate me for my damages. If I find out that your dog bit 14 OTHER people last month and you quietly settled THEIR claims, seems entirely appropriate that you aren’t getting the point, and should involve more punishment.

check out facts on McDonalds’ coffee suit (with thanks to Tratiak for the link)



I don’t think anyone argued against corporations being punished for reckless behavior. It’s the practice of awarding the plaintiff the punitive damages that’s being criticized (sp?).

To grab the most clicheed case, take the lady with the hot coffee. A lady injures herself on a cup of scalding coffee, it turns out that the restaurant selling the coffee had been warned about this several times, the lady sues and wins. Cool.

The lady gets a compensation for time spent in hospital, suffering etc. This should obviously come out of the offending restaurants pocket. Again, cool.

In order to punish the institution selling the coffee, we hit them in the wallet. If it’s McD’s, that means hundreds of thousands of dollars, if it’s “Norman’s All Night Diner & Dry Cleaner”, it’s probably in the thousands. An appropriate sum is confiscated and the restaurant has got its lesson.

What I do not understand is the rationale behind giving this sum to the plaintiff. The poor lady has been compensated for her pain & suffering. The restaurant has lost a sum large enough to hurt. IMHO, this last sum should be looked upon as a fine - i.e., it was necessary for the common good to confiscate the money (and “discipline” a wrongdoer) - what makes this different from the revenue from a speeding ticket ? I never thought I’d say this, but that money belongs in the public coffers. Use it to build a road or a school, stuff like that.

S. Norman

Only here can an individual get the proceeds of the punishment. In other countries if a company is punished with a fine, that money goes to the state. That makes sense to me.

*Originally posted by Spiny Norman *
**I don’t think anyone argued against corporations being punished for reckless behavior. It’s the practice of awarding the plaintiff the punitive damages that’s being criticized (sp?). **

just exactly what do you think punitive damages ARE??? they are excess damages awarded over actual loss to PUNISH for reckless behavior.

and why NOT to the person who most recently suffered as a result of the calous behavior of the corporation? seems appropriate to me. They are the ones who took the case to court, took the time and money to investigate it, fight it, etc. why shouldn’t the proceeds go to them? if the government had stepped in and wagged that battle on behalf of their citizens, (as in the multi million dollar suit by the collective attorney’s general for the various states against the tobacco co’s), fine.

I’m really not understanding the position folks take when they don’t want corporations to be held to the same level of accountability.

I don’t necessarily disagree with you, Spiny, but the rationale on the other side is that it compromises the judge’s role in determining the punitive damages if the money goes into the governmental coffers (e.g., to pay the judge’s salary). I doubt that this would be a problem in the short term, but there’s a slippery slope argument. (We need Libertarian to come in here and give a more articulate version of this argument) :slight_smile:


Yes, that’s exactly what I think punitive damages are. I was under the impression that we were debating the usefulness of that concept.

“most recently” sounds somewhat arbitrary to me.

The plaintiff has every right to be compensated for his/her actual loss, including time & effort spent in suing. When people put in the effort to fight their case in court (and prove that their case isn’t frivolous, for instance by winning), everybody benefits.

When, however, punitive damages run up into hundreds of thousands, I see a problem with people suing for the wrong reason, i.e. greed. I happen to consider that a serious problem. It certainly doesn’t add to the majesty of the law.

Same level as what ?

Seriously, I don’t think anyone argued for removing the accountability of corporations.

S. Norman

It does seem silly to award punitive damages to the plaintiff, but I wouldn’t want the judges thinking about how much money the budget is short this year either. Maybe a system whereby punitive damages could be sent to a recognized charity voted on by the stockholders and approved by the judge/jury or an independant panel? The amount could be chosen first, regardless of where the money goes.


same level of responsibility as individuals - so that an individual who keeps doing something wrong faces more serious consequences as the infractions keep coming.


again, the point is the corp was continuing to do something wrong. Don’t look at it from the viewpoint of the person who happens to be the 50th person that was injured. the CORP knew 49 others got hurt, were damaged, did nothing. why SHOULDN’T the 50th get compensated more? there was more “wrong doing” in effect - they knew there was a problem and refused to fix it. that’s calculated. remember the bean counters at Ford who decided that to “settle” the few lawsuits that would arise from the Pinto case was cheaper than to re-tool the engine design that caused the problem? Frankly that’s the “arbitrary” decision that would concern me more.

actually, when you remove the possibility of punitive damages, why wouldn’t a corporation choose to simply settle lawsuits as they come for merely damages? see above mention of the Pinto case.

so, I believe that punitive damages have a real value for our society, despite the rhetoric against recent large awards. and as far as who should benefit from the punitive damages, I see no rationalization why it ** shouldn’t ** be the person who sued other than some general feeling expressed here that gee the person didn’t do anything to earn the money and it’s alot of money. the question of how much punitive damages are awarded or should be, is up to each jury, which generally bases their decision on the entire case (how egregious was the behavior of the corp, etc - and in the case for instance of the McDonald’s verdict, the jury picked the amount Mc D’s earned from coffee sales for two days…). Keep in mind that monetary damages in order to have an effect, may in fact get pretty high. Again, to the mom and pop store, a punitive damage award of $100 may be sufficient, but to GM, it wouldn’t even be noticed. And, always subject to appeal.

It is worth notiung that given lawer costs, fees for expert witnesses, and so on, many of the receipiants of these huge awards see very little of it themselves (relatively, of course). So maybe it’s not as ridiculous as you think. IIRC, with the McD’s case, Newsweek–or a similar publication–detailed out the likely amount she would receive (the exact amonut cannot be determined…it was eventually settled out of court after appeal). It was really rather remarkable…not anything worth getting into a tizzy abbout.

Punative damages are necessary, for reasons that have already been pointed out. The sad fact is that companies will accept injuries or death caused by their products if that’s cheaper than fixing the problem–it all just a money equation. Punative damages add an element that must be taken into account when deciding whether to distribute something that can hurt people.

This isn’t to say that juries can’t get way out of hand in awarding punative damages–that’s why appellate courts often end up reducing awards. Limitations on punative damages sound good in theory, but would reduce their effectiveness. The real problem is that juries often see the battle as between David and Goliath, and side with David whether it actually makes any real sense or not. Then they frequently decide to cut more out of Goliath than is really warranted.

As to who should get the punative damages, the ones who should get them are the ones who were injured. The government has no business in the equation–they can tax any money they need out of the public. Enforced charitable contributions are an equally bad idea. The plantiffs who suffer the injuries, and who by their actions stop whatever harm was being caused, should get the reward. Third parties who have an unbearable urge to play with other peoples’ money should be ignored.

As for lawyers’ cuts of the dough…lawyers are not a public service. Contingency fees (which is what we’re talking about here) are a mechanism by which people who would otherwise not be able to afford to make a fuss can get good legal representation. If contingency fees were not allowed, the people who would suffer would be anyone who doesn’t have the money to blow tens of thousands of dollars on lawsuits…and that’s most people.

Here’s the rationalization:

It costs you and me money!

I’m amazed to see people defending the lady who spilled coffe on herself and sued McDonalds. What happened to personal responsibility? Since when has boiling water to make coffee become an offense to be litigated over? Why should your being a klutz allow you a fortune in money? Do you want all of your food cold now? If not coffee how about that Fajita Plate at Chi Chi’s that a kid tries to grab?

Allowing punitive damages to go to the person who sues encourages a raft of people out there to go for the quick and easy buck regardless of their own culpability in the accident.

Don’t believe it? Ever hear about the mass transit bus that was in an accident and people got on the bus after the accident before the police arrived and complained about injuries? How about some people who fill a car and cruise the freeways looking for nice cars to get into accidents with? If I pull in front of your Jaguar and slam on the brakes you are at fault for not following a safe distance…your insurance should pay up nicely.

This is abetted by the fact that attorneys usually take 33% of the judgement home with them…more if it’s appealed. If the recent tobacco settlement stands in Florida the attorney who litigated it will become the richest man in the world or close to it.

Maybe the McDonalds case isn’t the best illustration of lawsuits costing you and me money…you don’t have to buy food there if they raise prices to cover the settlement.

However, if the Florida tobacco settlement stands it’ll be ridiculous. The attorney carts away the money while each and every smoker in Florida has to litigate their case separately to prove damages. Last I heard if Florida hired 100 full-time judges to hear nothing but these cases it would take 70 years to complete the process. That’s taxpayer money.

The people who cause accidents on purpose or jump on the bus? There go your insurance premiums.

Should corporations be hit with punitive damages? You betcha! As was already pointed out regarding the Pinto a corp may deduce it’s cheaper to pay claims than to fix a product. They need to be hit REAL hard in cases like that so they will not see a profit motive behind continuing a dangerous product.

That said neither neither the plaintiff or their attorney should walk away with the cash they do. Pain and suffering (as silly as it is) might be added on top of actual damages for the plaintiff but not so much that suing looks like a road to riches. the attorney’s should have their take home from these cases capped. Say $1 million/year that the suit is in court MAX. That would be after costs were covered (investigators, paper, staples, etc.). Still a tidy sum by anyones reckoning but not the flat out drool factor of nailing a $144 billion dollar case (take home – $47 billion). The rest should be doled out to an appropriate charity as has been suggested earlier.

This society is getting WAY to litigious. Something should be done to bring some sanity back.

*Originally posted by wring *

The other argument against punitive damages being awarded to plaintiffs is that it encourages frivolous lawsuits seeking vast sums of money for negligible harms.

Dang it all. I opened the window to this thread and got involved in something real life. Otherwise I would not hav posted a nifty single sentence after Jeff’s well written exposition.

Huh? How so?

Personal responsibly? You mean, like, not giving boiling hot coffee to a customer?

Boiling water is one thing. Serving it while it’s still boiling is quite another.

So I take you believe

  1. Anyone who has ever spilt coffee is a klutz.
  2. klutzes have absolutely no rights.

Let me guess. You’re one of those people that believe that the news media accurately reflect the nature of society.

Do you have a cite showing that they were looking for punitive damages?

We’re talking about punitive damages here. Not damages in general, punitive damages. Get with the program.

And if punitive damages were not given to victims, this problem would be solved… how exactly?

As for why victims get punitive damages, I guess the thinking is that not everyone is harmed manages to win a suit, so if you can’t have 100% of the victims getting 100% of the damages, having 10% get 1000% is the best that can be done.

However, I think that the idea of punitive damages in a civil suit is ridiculous. A punitive damages award is a fine by another name, and fines are a criminal punishment. They have no place in a civil case.


If you have a problem with that, you should use the criminal justice system to pursue a solution. The civil justice system has no place in such concerns.

Premeditation should be irrelevant in a civil case.

Of course they can’t be jailed! Jail is a criminal punishment. Corporations are not criminal entities; they are only civil entities. (No jokes, please, I using the legal meanings of these terms).

There is no such thing. It is impossible for a corporation to commit a crime.

The term “premeditated” is meaningless when applied to corporations. They cannot meditate, let alone premeditate.

If you think that serving boiling coffee deserves punishment, punish the person who served it. If you think that keeping Pintos on the road deserves punishment, then punish the person that kept Pintos on the road. Why punsih stockholders? They did nothing wrong.

Gee Jeff_42, maybe you’d care to actually read up on the facts of the McD’s case:

  1. The coffee was served at about 45 degrees higher than the normal (relatively safe) temperature that most places use

  2. McD had already been sued 700+ times for this problem, and had failed to correct it.

  3. They admitted that they had not taken safety considerations into account when choosing the temp

  4. They claimed that customers usually bought the coffee en route to home or work, and consumed it there (so it needed to stay hot longer). Their * own * market research disproved this.

  5. The damages in fact were reduced to account for her own partial responsibility…

Riighhht. Accidents happen. Pintos aren’t meant to explode. The point is that they had an unsafe product, were grossly negligent in correcting the problems, and it caused serious injury. Open and shut case, really.

This has som of the facts on the case, the rest are easily available from a million different sources.

While I’m all for judicial reforms that reduce the incentive for frivolous litigation, remember that punitive damages aren’t awarded magically. Two points justify awarding punitive damages to the plaintiff:

Remember, to recover punitive damages, you usually have to prove malice or egregious conduct or gross negligence or something over and above a standard case for regular damages. Take, for example, the McDonald’s case. For the plaintiff to recover just ordinary damages, she need only prove that the coffee was too hot. That case requires two witnesses-- the plaintiff, and her doctor.

But if she wants to seek punitive damages, she’ll have to prove a pattern of behavior by McDonalds-- evidence of prior injuries to others, evidence of McDonald’s knowledge of such injuries, evidence of McDonald’s profits on coffee sales for calculating damages, etc. Suddenly a two witness case has grown into an extensive, multi-witness, document intensive case. If the plaintiff is not going to get to keep the punitive damage award, where is her incentive to locate, digest, and present this evidence to the jury? Because there is no economic incentive for a plaintiff to spend the additional time it takes to try a punitive damages case, a course of wrongdoing like McDonald’s will never be exposed and stopped.

In a related vein, most cases where a jury awards a hefty amount of punitive damages entail the defendant making a motion after the verdict to set aside the punitive damage award as being unsupported by the evidence. If the Plaintiff isn’t going to get to keep the punitive damages, where is the incentive for her or her attorney to spend time opposing the motion to set aside the punitive damage award? In many cases, plaintiffs’ attorneys can spend hundreds of hours on post-verdict motions and appeals solely to protect a punitive damage award from being reduced or overturned. If those awards are going to be payable to a charity or the government instead of the plaintiff, there is no more incentive for plaintiffs to bother to protect them once they’re awarded.

Nurlman’s reply is good and to the point. I want to point out some incorrect statements made in other replies.

Even in civil actions there is a difference between merely negligent and wilful. You can sue for negligence in a tort case (in the event of a car accident) or you can sue for battery (some one slugs you). This is basic.

A reply said that corps cannot commit a crime. Wrongo. Corps are often convicted of crimes and sometimes their CEOs go to jail, but not often.

A reply said that a corporation cannot premeditate. Wrongo again. Corporations act thru their agents, who are well capable of premeditating. This applies to the statement that the server should be sued, not McD. However, the server is the agent of McD. Respondeat Superior, they say at law.

My initial thread was to debate not whether punitive damages should be eliminated, but should they be limited. I certainly don’t believe they should be eliminated. They serve a very useful purpose, as pointed out by several, to prevent corps or any one (punitive damages are possible against individuals too) from a pattern of committing very offensive acts, or aggravated acts. However, the amounts of some of these punitive das. have become ridiculous.