Surprisingly Punitive Damages
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.