Surprisingly Punitive Damages

Essay — Volume 100, Issue 5

100 Va. L. Rev. 1027
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Think first of the classic problem of redundant punitive damages: A defendant has caused a mass tort. Plaintiff 1 sues, winning punitive damages based on the overall reprehensibility of that original act. Plaintiff 2 also sues—and also wins punitive damages on the same grounds. So do Plaintiff 3, Plaintiff 4, and so forth.

Next, consider a more subtle problem: Many statutes set the minimum award per claim at a super-compensatory level, based on the assumption that private suits may need extra inducement. But when enforcement turns out to be more vigorous than was assumed—most famously, when thousands or millions of claims are brought at once—then the damages in even a single case can stack up to surprisingly punishing effect.

These problems share a conceptual feature that I analyze here: The damages in each context can be seen as encompassing two distinct components—a “variable” portion that properly varies with the number of claims, and a “fixed” portion that should be awarded only once. The crucial error that leads to surprisingly punitive damages is repeatedly awarding not only the variable but also the fixed component of damages, in cases with multiple claims.

One natural solution for neutralizing such redundancy is to allow courts to run concurrently the fixed component of such repeated awards.  This paper explores how a “concurrent damages” approach might be applied to variations of each problem; addresses its pros, cons, and complications; and explores how it relates to other procedural devices, including preclusion and aggregation.

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  Volume 100 / Issue 5  

Marrying Liberty and Equality: The New Jurisprudence of Gay Rights

By Cary Franklin
100 Va. L. Rev. 817

Beyond Title VII: Rethinking Race, Ex-Offender Status, and Employment Discrimination in the Information Age

By Kimani Paul-Emile
100 Va. L. Rev. 893

States as Interest Groups in the Administrative Process

By Miriam Seifter
100 Va. L. Rev. 953

Surprisingly Punitive Damages

By Bert I. Huang
100 Va. L. Rev. 1027