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Punitive Damages

Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, may be awarded to a plaintiff in addition to compensatory damages when a defendant's conduct is particularly willful, wanton, malicious, vindictive, or oppressive. Punitive damages are awarded not as compensation, but to punish the wrongdoer and to act as a deterrent to others who might engage in similar conduct.

The amount of punitive damages to be awarded lies within the discretion of the trier of fact, which must consider the nature of the wrongdoer's behavior, the extent of the plain-tiff's loss or injury, and the degree to which the defendant's conduct is repugnant to a societal sense of justice and decency. An award of punitive damages will usually not be disturbed on the grounds that it is excessive, unless it can be shown that the jury or judge was influenced by prejudice, bias, passion, partiality, or corruption.

In the late twentieth century, the constitutionality of punitive damages has been considered in several U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In 1989, the Court held that large punitive damages awards did not violate the EIGHTH AMENDMENT prohibition against the imposition of excessive fines (Browning-Ferris Industries of Vermont v. Kelco Disposal, 492 U.S. 257, 109 S. Ct. 2909, 106 L. Ed. 2d 219). Later, in Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Haslip, 499 U.S. 1, 111 S. Ct. 1032, 113 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1991), the Court held that unlimited jury discretion in awarding punitive damages is not "so inherently unfair" as to be unconstitutional under the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution. And in TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp., 509 U.S. 443, 113 S. Ct. 2711, 125 L. Ed. 2d 366 (1993), the Court ruled that a punitive damages award that was 526 times the compensatory award did not violate due process. Both Haslip and TXO Production disappointed observers who hoped that the Court would place limits on large and increasingly common punitive damages awards. In a 1994 decision, the Court did strike down an amendment to the Oregon Constitution that prohibited JUDICIAL REVIEW of punitive damages awards, on the ground that it violated due process (Honda Motor Co. v. Oberg, 512 U.S. 415, 114 S. Ct. 2331, 129 L. Ed. 2d 336).

In a jury proceeding, the court may review the award, although the amount of damages to be awarded is an issue for the jury. If the court determines that the verdict is excessive in view of the particular circumstances of the case, it can order REMITTITUR, which is a procedural process in which the jury verdict is reduced. The opposite process, known as ADDITUR, occurs when the court deems the jury's award of damages to be inadequate and orders the defendant to pay a greater sum. Both remittitur and additur are used at the discretion of the trial judge, and are designed to remedy a blatantly inaccurate damages award by the jury without the necessity of a new trial or an appeal.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Cross‐contamination to Deed of covenantDamages - Compensatory Damages, Nominal Damages, Punitive Damages, Liquidated Damages, Appellate Review Of Damages, Further Readings - Treble Damages