Punitive Damages in Civil Litigation: Fewer Trials, Reduced Deterrence

Much has been written in recent years about the decline in the number of civil jury trials throughout the country. With the pandemic shutting down the courts for months this year, the number of civil jury trials in 2020 will likely be the lowest in several decades. As a result, the number of jury verdicts that include a punitive damages award should also be quite low.

One justification for allowing punitive damages in civil cases is to deter repetition of the conduct, which leads to the question of whether the decreasing number of punitive damages awards will impact the effectiveness of punitive damages as a deterrent. Increasingly, excessive punitive damages awards have already resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court enforcing due process limits on punitive damages, as shown by cases such as Gore v. BMW
and State Farm v. Campbell.
While acknowledging the deterrence and retribution justifications for punitive damages, in those cases the Supreme Court also recognized that punitive damages “pose an acute danger of arbitrary deprivation of property” and that a grossly excessive award “furthers no legitimate purpose[.]”