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  Some Simple Truths About Punitive Damages



Punitive Damages are Rarely Awarded,
The Amounts are Small, and Judges, Not Juries, Are More Apt to Give Them

While tort "reform" advocates claim that punitive awards are out of control, a study by the U.S. Department of Justice sets the record straight. Punitive damages, awarded in cases where the defendant's misconduct has been found to be "willful and malicious," aren't awarded as widely as tort 'reformers' would have people believe.

The truth is that only a small number of cases in state courts receive punitive damages. Even more telling is the finding that it is judges, and not juries, who award the most significant sums.

The Justice Department study, prepared by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for State Courts, looked at 10,278 state court injury trials in the 75 largest counties in America, held in 1996. Here's what they found:

  • Punitive damages were awarded in just 3.3 percent of the 4,879 trials won by plaintiffs - that only equals 162 cases.

  • Most punitive awards are for less than $40,000.

  • The median award from a judge was more than the median award from a jury - $75,000 vs. $27,000, respectively.

  • Judges found for the plaintiff 57 percent of the time, while so-called "overly sympathetic" juries sided with the plaintiff 48 percent of the time.

  • Theodore Eisenberg, the Cornell Law School professor recruited by the National Center for State Courts to analyze the Justice Department study, called the results "simply staggering," and mentioned that the "stereotype is that juries are pushovers for plaintiffs . . . the perceptions are just the opposite of what we are seeing." (Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2000, B1.)

The truth about punitive damagest is that the current system works fairly

Reprinted with the permission of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.