Retributive Damages: Some Recent Normative Scholarship

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(Dan Markel) Earlier posts on the topic of Retributive Damages can be found here. The whole article can be found here.

Recent Normative Scholarship

Unsurprisingly, the complexity, significance, and rapidly evolving nature of punitive damages law has attracted the attention of many scholars. Some legal economists, like Professors Polinsky and Shavell, think extra-compensatory damages should focus on advancing the goal of cost-internalization. As I explained earlier, under this economic framework, a defendant’s culpability or state of mind is immaterial to her obligation to pay for the harms that she causes.[1] Instead, what matters is whether there was any likelihood the defendant would evade paying compensation for the harms she caused. If there is such a possibility, then the amount of punitive damages should be calibrated to the likelihood of her evading compensation.[2] This particular economic approach, however, is clearly at odds with the existing doctrine, which, as we saw in the previous Section, generally requires there to be some finding of malice or recklessness before punitive damages can be awarded.

As a matter of policy prescription, the economic approach’s inconsistency with extant doctrine is obviously not a knock against it. Generally speaking, individuals and entities should have to pay for the mess they make; if they can exploit enforcement gaps by private and public parties, there will be an incentive to take insufficient care, which will also run the risk of under-deterrence.[3] But the cost-internalization approach, which is conceptually unconcerned with mens rea or culpability, is better thought of as pursuing “augmented” damages, rather than “punitive” damages.[4] This allows us to contrast augmented damages from other extra-compensatory damages.

Other scholars have provided an alternative to the cost-internalization rationale for punitive damages by instead discussing punitive damages awards in terms of how they vindicate a victim’s dignity and autonomy interests, which have been injured by the defendant’s misconduct.[5] In some common law jurisdictions, these extra-compensatory damages are more precisely labeled as “aggravated” damages—and they would go to plaintiffs for the injury to their dignity.[6] Some supporters of these non-economic accounts have defended large parts of extant common law punitive damages law on the grounds that these practices serve as vehicles by which victims or their allies can take measures to persuade juries to avenge the victim’s interests through ad hoc, and therefore unpredictable, awards of money damages to victims.[7] Indeed, for some social justice tort theorists, common law jury-driven punitive damages practice serves as a way for an ordinary person to fight malfeasant entities and their lobbyists seeking business-friendly “tort reform.”[8] Some scholars, such as Galanter and Luban, drawing on the work of Jean Hampton’s victim-vindication justification for punishment, even view themselves as committed to the goals or values of retributive justice.

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October 9, 2014 |

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