Compensatory damages are awarded in meritorious lawsuits to compensate an injured party for his or her lost wages, pain and suffering, personal injury, loss of enjoyment of life and, in particularly tragic cases, the death of a loved one.
Punitive damages, on the other hand, are awarded only in those serious cases where a jury has determined that a defendant has acted with actual malice or with a wanton and willful disregard for public safety. There is no public policy justification for granting unwarranted privilege from the consequences of such wrongdoing. Limiting punitive damages would strip individuals of the power to make reckless or malicious defendants change their misconduct. Please consider the following before voting on this very important issue:
Despite the anecdotal stories, punitive damages are rare and our court scrutinize such awards carefully. According to information obtained from New Jersey Jury Verdict and Review, less than 10 awards for punitive damages have been rendered in New Jersey since 1980 in product liability or toxic tort cases.
Nationwide, in nearly 80 percent of the products liability cases in which punitive damages were awarded, the manufacturer made a subsequent safety change, according to a study by professor Michael Rustad of Suffolk University in Boston.
Limiting punitive damages to an arbitrary level would undercut their deterrent value since reckless or malicious defendants might find it more cost effective to continue their bad behavior and risk paying punitive damages. This is precisely the decision making employed by the Ford Motor Company regarding its Pinto automobile. The company determined that it would be cheaper to sell the defectively designed car, and risk paying damage awards to injured consumers, than it would be to make the car significantly safer at a cost of $11 per car.
Society would be much worse off if injered persons were not able to hold wrongdoers accountable. The makers of asbestos certainly did not voluntarily assume responsibility for the harm they caused. The A.H. Robins Company did not offer to compensate the thousands of women injured by the Dalkon Shield. .
Given these facts, why do the proponents of this so called “reform” seek to protect reckless and malicious wrongdoers from bearing responsibility for their acts? Why do they attack jurors’ judgments in awarding punitive damages, when those very same jurors are trusted to put persons to death in capital cases? Finally, why do they argue that the threat of punitive damages increases litigation costs without offering any empirical data whatsoever?
Punitive damages should be neither limited nor aboloshed since it is only the award of punitive damages that has placed accountability where it belongs — at the door of the wrongdoer.