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惩罚性损害赔偿

 PUNITIVE DAMAGES

A. Mitchell Polinsky

Stanford University

Steven Shavell

Harvard University

© Copyright 1999 A. Mitchell Polinsky and Steven Shavell

 

Abstract

This chapter concerns punitive damages. In considering the rationale for the

award of punitive damages, we refer to two broad social goals: deterrence and

punishment. In Section 2 we review the basic theory of deterrence, and in

Sections 3 through 6, we discuss the main deterrence-related justifications for

punitive damages: the possibility of escaping sanctions; underestimation of

harm; socially illicit gains; and inducing parties to bargain rather than acting

unilaterally to cause harm. Then in Section 7 we examine the punishment goal

and how it is served by punitive damages, and in Section 8 we consider how the

punishment and deterrence goals should jointly determine damages. Finally, in

Section 9 we address a variety of extensions to the analysis and certain legal

doctrines that bear on the award of punitive damages: reprehensibility of

conduct; wealth of injurers; whether victims are strangers or customers;

litigation costs; insurability; and tax treatment.

JEL classification: K13, K41

Keywords: Punitive Damages, Deterrence, Punishment

 

1. Introduction

 

This chapter concerns punitive damages, an important form of damages that

sometimes are awarded to plaintiffs in addition to compensatory damages. (The

term ‘punitive damages’ is somewhat inapt because the purpose of such

damages is only partly, and perhaps not even mainly, to punish; we

nevertheless use the term because it is conventional.) In the United States,

punitive damages are awarded in approximately 6 percent of all cases in which

plaintiffs prevail. While punitive damages are granted mainly in tort case, they

are increasingly employed in contract disputes and other areas of litigation; see

generally Eisenberg et al. (1997) for an evaluation of the empirical significance

of punitive damages. Outside of the United States, punitive damages and other

forms of extra-compensatory damages are of lesser importance (see Stoll, 1983,

pp. 99-106). (Much of what we have to say, however, is relevant to publicly

imposed penalties that exceed harm, which are common in all countries.)

 

In considering the justification for awarding punitive damages, we will refer

to two broad social goals: deterrence and punishment. By deterrence we mean

the use of sanctions to influence behavior, so as to maximize the following

measure of social welfare: the benefits parties obtain from their actions, less the

costs of precautions, the harm done, and the expenses due to use of the legal

system. By punishment, we mean the imposition of sanctions to satisfy a desire

for retribution against wrongdoers. We generally do not consider compensation

and the reduction of risk as social goals; this simplification is not of great

consequence because punitive damages are extra-compensatory; thus, there is

no need to insure victims (although the bearing of liability risk by injurers

remains an issue, as will be noted).

 

The remainder of this chapter is organized as follows. In Section 2, we

review the basic theory of deterrence, and in Sections 3 through 6 we discuss

the main deterrence-related justifications for punitive damages: the possibility

of escaping sanctions; underestimation of harm; socially illicit gains; and

inducing parties to bargain rather than acting unilaterally to cause harm. Then

in Section 7 we examine the punishment goal and how it is served by punitive

damages, and in Section 8 we consider how the punishment and deterrence

goals should jointly determine damages. Finally, in Section 9 we address a

variety of extensions to the analysis and certain legal doctrines that bear on the

award of punitive damages.

 

2. Optimal Damages when Injurers are Found Liable for Sure: The

Basic Theory of Deterrence

 

We summarize here the basic principles of the economic theory of deterrence

and liability assuming that, whenever a party causes harm, he will be

sanctioned for sure. (For integrated treatments of the standard theory of liability

and deterrence, see Landes and Posner, 1987 and Shavell, 1987.) In this

setting, the point on which we want to focus is that the proper magnitude of

damages is the harm that the party has caused. (The term ‘damages’ means the

magnitude of liability payments.) We first discuss this point when liability is

strict - when injurers are liable for harm regardless of the care they took - and

then when liability is based on the negligence rule - when injurers are liable for

harm only if they were at fault. Readers familiar with the basic theory of

deterrence and liability may want to proceed directly to Section 3.

 

There are two basic reasons why it is best for damages to equal harm under

strict liability. The first concerns the level of precautions taken by parties,

where the term ‘precautions’ is to be interpreted generally (including, for

example, the use of safety devices, attention to hazards, and the monitoring of

employees by firms). If damages equal harm, parties will have socially correct

incentives to take precautions; they will be induced to invest in precautions if

and only if the cost is less than the resulting reduction in expected harm. If,

however, damages are less than harm, precautions will tend to be inadequate,

and if damages exceed harm, precautions will tend to be excessive.

 

The second reason why it is desirable for damages to equal harm involves

parties’ level of activity - the extent to which individuals and firms participate

in risky activities. A party’s level of activity affects the magnitude of expected

harm, whatever precautions are taken by the party when engaging in the

activity. For example, the more miles a person drives (his level of activity), the

greater the number of accidents that he is likely to cause, whatever is his level

of care when he drives. Similarly, the more units of a product produced and

sold by a firm (its level of activity), the greater the number of accidents that will

be caused by the product, whatever are the safety features of the product (which

affect the expected harm per unit sold).

 

If damages equal harm, parties will have socially correct incentives to

engage in risky activities. In particular, because an individual’s expected

damages will equal the expected harm he causes by participating in an activity

(such as driving), he will participate in the activity if and only if the benefit he

obtains from the activity exceeds the resulting expected harm. Likewise, a firm

will produce a product if and only if its value, as reflected in the willingness of

customers to pay for it, exceeds the full cost of its production, including the

expected harm that it causes. (This is because the price of the product will equal

its full cost of production, assuming for simplicity that the firm produces in a

competitive environment.) However, if damages are less than harm, levels of

activity will tend to be socially excessive, and if damages exceed harm, levels

of activity will tend to be too low.

 

Let us turn now to the negligence rule, under which a party whose level of

precautions is below a specified standard is said to be negligent and must pay

damages. Assume that the negligence standard is set equal to the optimal level

of precautions (the level that minimizes the sum of precaution costs and

expected harm). Then, if damages for negligence equal harm, parties will

decide to comply with the negligence standard and thus will take appropriate

precautions. However, if damages are less than harm, parties might not meet

the standard. If damages exceed harm, parties will have a more-than-adequate

incentive to meet the standard, and no reason to exceed it, assuming that the

negligence determination is accurate.

 

Realistically, however, there will be errors in the negligence determination.

For example, courts may err in determining the negligence standard or in

assessing parties’ behavior. Because of the risk of such mistakes, parties may

have an incentive to take greater precautions than they would otherwise, in

order to reduce the chance that they will incorrectly be found negligent. If the

chance of mistake leads parties to take excessive precautions, raising the level

of damages will exacerbate this problem.

 

Next consider the relationship between damages and the level of activity

under the negligence rule. In the absence of mistakes, the negligence rule will

tend to cause parties to participate in risky activities to a socially excessive

extent. This is because, once a party takes the precautions required by the

negligence standard, he will not be found liable for any harms that he causes.

For example, a person who drives with reasonable care will not be found

negligent, and therefore will not have to pay for any harm caused by his

driving; consequently, he will drive more than is socially desirable. However,

because non-negligent parties sometimes will be found liable by mistake, they

will sometimes bear damages. In principle, this could ameliorate the problem

of excessive participation in risky activities under the negligence rule. It also

is possible, however, that finding parties negligent by mistake will result in

their bearing damages in excess of the harm they have caused, and thereby

overly discourage their participation in activities. This effect, if it occurs, will

be exacerbated by raising the level of damages.

 

The preceding discussion shows that there is not a simple, theoretically

correct answer to the question of what level of damages is optimal under the

negligence rule. We will assume for simplicity that optimal damages under the

negligence rule are equal to the harm, as under the rule of strict liability.

Accordingly, we generally will not distinguish between the two rules in our

subsequent discussion.

 

In passing, we want to note that the conclusion that damages should equal

harm depends on our implicit assumption that parties are risk neutral. If

injurers are risk averse and cannot purchase liability insurance, the optimal

level of damages tends to be lower than harm, both to reduce the imposition of

risk on injurers and because damages do not need to be as high to induce

injurers to behave appropriately. But if, as is realistic, liability insurance is

available (even if only partially available due to moral hazard), the optimal

level of damages remains equal to the harm. Also, publicly-held firms should

be treated as approximately risk neutral - implying that damages should equal

harm - if their shareholders have well-diversified portfolios, which often, if not

usually, will be the case.

 

We next turn to various deterrence-based rationales for setting damages in

excess of harm - that is, for imposing punitive damages. The first and most

important of these arises when injurers might escape liability.

 

3. Optimal Damages when Injurers Might Escape Liability

 

There are several reasons why injurers sometimes escape liability for harms for

which they should be liable under a liability rule. First, it may be difficult for

the victim to determine that the harm was the result of some party’s act - as

opposed to simply being the result of nature, of bad luck. This might be the

case, for instance, if an individual develops a form of cancer that could have

been caused by exposure to a naturally occurring carcinogen but which was in

fact caused by exposure to a man-made carcinogen. Second, even if the victim

knows that he was injured by a person’s conduct and not by nature, it might be

difficult for him to prove who caused the harm. The owner of a parked car that

was damaged might know that it had been struck by another vehicle but not be

able to identify the injurer or be able to establish his identity in court. Third,

even if the victim knows both that he was wrongfully injured and who injured

him, he might not sue the injurer because of the effort and expense a suit would

entail.

 

The consequences of the possibility that injurers can escape liability are

clear. If damages merely equal harm, injurers’ motivations to take precautions

will be inadequate and their incentive to participate in risky activities will be

excessive. To remedy these problems, the damages that are imposed in those

instances when injurers are found liable should be raised sufficiently so that

injurers’ expected damages will equal the harm they cause. This implies that

total damages should equal the harm multiplied by the reciprocal of the

probability that the injurer will be found liable when he ought to be. Formally,

if h is harm and p is the probability of being found liable, the injurer should pay

h . (1/p) = h/p when he is found liable; his expected damages therefore will be

p . (h/p) = h. We will refer to 1/p as the total damages multiplier. For example,

if the probability of being found liable is 0.25, the total damages multiplier is

4 (= 1/0.25), so the injurer should pay, in total, four times the level of harm if

he is found liable.

 

The excess of total damages over compensatory damages can be labeled

punitive damages. Thus, the optimal level of punitive damages is the optimal

level of total damages less compensatory damages. If the harm is $100,000 and

the probability of being found liable is 0.25, implying a total damages

multiplier of 4, total damages should be $400,000; since $100,000 of this total

represents compensatory damages, the $300,000 remainder is the optimal

punitive damages amount. This amount also can be described as a multiple of

harm or, equivalently, of compensatory damages. Since optimal total damages

are h/p, optimal punitive damages are h/p h, which can be rewritten as -

[(1 p)/p]h. The term in brackets - the ratio of the injurer’s chance of escaping -

liability to the injurer’s chance of being found liable - is the punitive damages

multiplier. In the preceding example, the punitive damages multiplier is 3 (=

0.75/0.25), which, when multiplied by the harm of $100,000, yields the

$300,000 punitive damages amount.

 

Note that the award of punitive damages may itself raise the probability of

suit, and therefore the probability that an injurer will be found liable. This

effect, when applicable, should be taken into account. In general, there will be

a level of damages that, given the resulting probability of suit, will lead to

optimal deterrence. Basing punitive damages on the relatively low probability

of suit that would occur if just compensatory damages were awarded would tend

to lead to excessive damages.

 

The general point that, to achieve proper deterrence, sanctions must be

inflated if injurers can escape liability, dates back at least to Bentham

([1838-1843] 1962, pp. 401-402) and has been applied to the subject of punitive

damages by many commentators. The first explicit references to the factor of

escaping liability as a justification for punitive damages apparently are Posner

(1972, pp. 77-78) and Ellis (1982, pp. 25-26); this justification has been

developed most thoroughly by Cooter (1989) and Polinsky and Shavell (1998).

 

4. Optimal Damages when Harm is Underestimated

 

Even if injurers are always found liable when they are responsible for harm, if

the magnitude of harm is underestimated, compensatory damages will be less

than harm and deterrence will be inadequate. This possibility is realistic

because hard-to-measure components of harm (such as nonpecuniary losses)

often are excluded from damages. Such missing components of harm are

commonly mentioned as a reason to impose punitive damages (see especially

Ellis, 1982, pp. 26-31 and Galligan, 1990).

 

However, as emphasized in Polinsky and Shavell (1998, pp. 939-941), there

is a problem with employing punitive damages as a substitute for missing

components of compensatory damages. Namely, a component of harm might

be excluded from compensatory damages because of the difficulties and expense

that would be encountered in its estimation. For example, were the pain and

suffering experienced by the friends of a person who dies included in

compensatory awards, the number of claimants in cases of wrongful death

could become quite large, and the cost of litigation would also increase as

parties contested the degree of their psychological losses. It may well be best,

then, for the law to exclude from compensatory damages many such

speculative, difficult-to-determine elements of harm, even though these

elements are real and their omission does undesirably dilute deterrence. If a

component of loss is excluded from compensatory damages for such reasons,

arguably it should be excluded from punitive damages for the same reasons.

 

Conversely, if a component of loss should have been included in

compensatory damages, despite the costs of doing so, this mistake in legal

policy should be rectified by incorporating the component in such damages.

Including the component only in punitive damages would still result in

underdeterrence, for the component would remain omitted in the large majority

of cases in which only compensatory damages are awarded. Moreover, the

component of loss would probably be more poorly measured as a form of

punitive damages because the calculation of such damages is not disciplined by

the procedures and evidentiary requirements common to the determination of

compensatory damages.

 

5. Optimal Damages when Injurers’ Gains are Socially Illicit

 

We have implicitly assumed to this point that the gains that parties obtain from

committing harmful acts count in social welfare, whereas here we consider the

situation when their gains are not counted in social welfare because they are

treated as socially illicit. Suppose that a person, out of spite, punches another

individual. Society might well deem the pleasure the injurer obtains from this

act to be socially illicit. This view of an injurer’s gains would seem especially

plausible when the injurer’s utility derives solely from causing harm (that is,

when the injurer’s act is malicious). However, certain conduct that is not

intended to cause harm might also be treated as socially illicit, for instance,

driving at high speed for the fun of it.

 

If an injurer’s utility from an act is considered socially illicit (whatever the

explanation for this), it is desirable for the act to be deterred completely. To

accomplish this, damages must exceed the injurer’s utility from committing the

act. And since the injurer’s utility could be greater than the harm, the required

level of damages might exceed the harm. For instance, if the illicit gain from

an act is equivalent to $500 to the injurer and the harm is $100, damages of at

least $500 are necessary to deter the act. This justification for punitive damages

was first noted by Ellis (1982, pp. 31-33) and Cooter (1982, pp. 86-89); for

more formal treatments, see Shavell (1987, pp. 159-161) and Diamond (1997a,

pp. 8-11).

 

It should be noted, though, that the present justification for punitive

damages is limited in scope. Many, if not most, socially undesirable acts

committed by individuals, including some very reprehensible ones, do not seem

to be associated with socially illicit utility; often this is because such acts are

not committed with the intention of causing harm. Similarly, most conduct of

firms is unlikely to be associated with socially illicit utility, since the goal of

firms is to make profit, not cause harm.

 

6. Optimal Damages when Parties can Bargain and Transact in the

Marketplace

 

In some circumstances it is possible for a party to communicate with a potential

victim before causing harm. This would usually be so, for example, when a firm

contemplates infringing on another’s copyright. When prior communication is

possible, a potential injurer could negotiate in advance with the potential victim

to purchase the right to engage in the harm-creating conduct. The firm

deliberating about the copyright violation could secure a license to use the

copyrighted material.

 

In such circumstances, it may be socially desirable to induce a potential

injurer to bargain and purchase the right to engage in harm-creating conduct -

by threatening to impose punitive damages if the injurer acts unilaterally to

cause harm. This point apparently originated with Calabresi and Melamed

(1972) and was further developed by Biggar (1995), Haddock, McChesney and

Spiegel (1990), Kaplow and Shavell (1996) and Landes and Posner (1981).

 

To amplify on this rationale for punitive damages, suppose that

compensatory damages alone are employed and that they are underestimated.

A potential injurer then might cause harm when doing so is socially

undesirable - because the benefit to the injurer might be less than the harm

done, but greater than the low estimate of compensatory damages.

 

There may be additional undesirable repercussions from underestimating

compensatory damages. If injurers can take property from victims without

having to pay its full value, injurers will devote effort to identifying and taking

such property (copyright violators will seek out material to copy), and victims

will expend effort to protect their property (copyright owners will invest

resources in preventing duplication of their material). Such efforts are socially

wasteful; they are similar to those associated with the theft of property.

 

The foregoing problems can be avoided if punitive damages are imposed for

unilaterally causing harm. If the level of such damages is set so that total

damages substantially exceed the value of the property at issue, a potential

injurer will be induced to bargain with the property owner - it will be cheaper

to pay an agreed upon price than to pay damages. Consequently, property will

be exchanged only if the injurer’s benefit exceeds the property owner’s loss,

and the wasteful incentives to take and to protect property will be eliminated.

 

Another possible reason to employ punitive damages to encourage

bargaining and market transactions concerns administrative costs. If

compensatory damages are used alone, harm and the taking of property will

tend to be mediated through the legal system by the bringing of lawsuits. But

if punitive damages are used as a threat, harm and the shifting of property

interests will be much more likely to occur through voluntary transactions, the

costs of which are likely to be lower than those associated with litigation.

 

The preceding arguments favoring the use of punitive damages to promote

negotiation and market transactions obviously do not apply if bargaining

between parties is not possible or if there are substantial impediments to it.

Suppose, for instance, that a hiker lost in the mountains discovers an

unoccupied cabin. The benefit he would obtain from using the cabin and

consuming the food in it presumably would exceed the loss borne by the cabin’s

owner. But because there is no opportunity for the hiker to bargain with the

owner, the threat of punitive damages might discourage the hiker from using

the cabin, which would be undesirable. Hence, when parties cannot bargain, it

may be better just to employ compensatory damages (despite the possibility of

errors in estimation). Additionally, even if bargaining is feasible, there may be

other impediments to efficient exchange - such as bargaining failures due to

strategic behavior that could justify relying solely on compensatory damages.

 

Because many harms cannot, as a practical matter, be resolved beforehand

by bargaining - including most harms due to accidents between strangers, such

as automobile accidents - and because bargaining failures are important, the

present justification for punitive damages often will not be relevant.

 

7. Optimal Damages and Punishment

 

Having discussed the use of punitive damages to accomplish proper deterrence,

let us now turn to the punishment objective. We treat this objective as deriving

from the desire of individuals to have blameworthy parties appropriately

punished. We equate blameworthiness with the reprehensibility of a party’s

conduct, that is, with its maliciousness or the extent to which it reflects

disregard for the safety of others. Given the degree of a party’s

blameworthiness, we assume that there is a correct level of punishment, and

that either higher or lower punishment detracts from satisfaction of the

punishment objective.

 

When the defendant is an individual, the connection between imposition of

punitive damages and accomplishment of the punishment objective is

conceptually straightforward: if, after assessing the blameworthiness of an

individual’s act, appropriate punitive damages are imposed, the punishment

objective is achieved.

 

However, when the defendant is a firm, the role of punitive damages in

relation to the punishment objective involves a number of complexities; these

have been considered in Polinsky and Shavell (1998, pp. 948-954). One is that

there are different ways of viewing the objective of punishment: the goal may

be to punish firms as entities, that is, without reference to whether anyone

within a firm behaved inappropriately or was punished as a consequence; or the

goal may be to punish firms only as a means of punishing culpable individuals

in the firms. We find the former conception of the punishment goal

unappealing both because it requires a definition of blameworthiness of a firm

that is divorced from the behavior of any individuals who are affiliated with it,

and because it necessitates believing that people would, after reflecting about

the matter, want to impose a penalty on what ultimately is an artificial legal

construct. Notwithstanding these reservations, it is possible that people do want

to personify firms and punish them as entities, and the reader can make up his

or her mind about the importance of this way of defining the punishment

objective.

 

Now consider the alternative reason for punishing firms - as a means of

punishing blameworthy individuals within them. Supposing that this is the

purpose of punishment, we turn to the question of the extent to which the

imposition of punitive damages on firms will in fact result in the punishment

of blameworthy employees. Because firms clearly have an interest in

discouraging culpable conduct by their employees that could give rise to

punitive damages, firms can be expected to seek to control such conduct

through the use of internal sanctions (such as demotion or dismissal). However,

several considerations suggest that the imposition of punitive damages on firms

will have a smaller effect on the punishment of blameworthy employees than

might at first be supposed.

 

First, culpable employees may not be punished by firms because firms may

have difficulty identifying them. Second, even if culpable individuals within a

firm can be identified and punished by the firm, imposing punitive damages on

firms often will have little or no marginal effect on their punishment. That is,

the internal sanction imposed on such employees may not be much (if at all)

greater as a result of the firm’s bearing both punitive and compensatory

damages than if the firm had borne compensatory damages alone, because the

latter may result in the firm imposing the maximum internal sanction on the

employee. Additionally, there may not even exist culpable employees in the

firm to punish: responsibility for a decision may be so dispersed that no one

person would be considered blameworthy with respect to it; and even if there

are such persons, they may have changed jobs, retired, or died by the time a

judgment is rendered.

 

A further point is that imposing punitive damages on firms often penalizes the

firms’ shareholders and customers, who ordinarily would not be thought to

deserve punishment. This adverse consequence of punitive damages must be

weighed against the beneficial effects of such damages in furthering the

punishment goal.

 

To amplify, shareholders, as residual claimants on a firm’s profits,

obviously will be made worse off when punitive damages are imposed on a

firm. The question, however, is whether they should be punished. If a

shareholder owns a significant share of a firm’s stock, participated actively in

the firm’s decisions and acted egregiously, then his position would be much the

same as that of a blameworthy employee with decision-making power; each

would be morally culpable. But if a shareholder owns a minuscule fraction of

the stock of the firm, and was a passive investor with no direct involvement in

the firm’s decision-making processes, then his degree of blameworthiness is

small, if it exists at all.

 

A firm’s customers also will suffer from the imposition of punitive damages

on the firm if such damages cause the prices of the firm’s products or services

to rise. This can occur because firms may regard punitive damages as an

additional cost of doing business - a cost that, with a positive probability, will

be borne by them beyond their ordinary costs. To cover the added cost of

punitive damages, therefore, firms will have to raise their prices, which will

cause the welfare of their customers to decline. It seems clear, however, that

customers would not ordinarily be considered blameworthy, because they do not

exert direct control over the actions of firms that pose risks to other persons.

 

Thus, assuming that the punishment objective with respect to firms is to

ensure that blameworthy individuals are penalized, punitive damages do not

accomplish this objective in a direct way and also tend to penalize parties who

are not blameworthy.

 

8. Optimal Damages in the Light of Both Objectives

 

The levels of damages that are optimal from the perspective of the two separate

objectives of deterrence and of punishment generally will be different. Notably,

the level that is best for deterrence is likely to exceed that which is best for

punishment if the chance of being found liable is low and the magnitude of

punitive damages necessary for deterrence therefore is high. Conversely, the

level that is best for punishment is likely to be higher if the chance of being

found liable is high, because then optimal damages for purposes of deterrence

are approximately equal to harm, but the reprehensibility of the defendant’s act

presumably calls for extra-compensatory damages to serve the punishment

objective.

 

It is evident that the optimal level of damages overall - that which

maximizes a measure of social welfare combining both objectives - is a

compromise between the levels that are optimal when each objective is

considered independently, as noted in Polinsky and Shavell (1998, pp. 955-956)

and developed in Diamond (1997b).

 

9. Extensions of the Analysis

 

In this Section we will consider a variety of additional topics, focusing on the

deterrence objective and usually restricting attention to the rationale for

punitive damages stemming from the chance that the injurer can escape

liability. We will, however, mention the punishment objective when it seems

of particular importance.

 

Reprehensibility of Conduct

The law requires that a defendant be found to have acted in a reprehensible

manner before punitive damages can be imposed on him. However, as

emphasized in Galligan (1990, pp. 62-64) and Polinsky and Shavell (1998, pp.

905-910), this legal policy often is inconsistent with the deterrence objective.

On one hand, emphasis on reprehensibility may lead to imposition of punitive

damages when such damages are not needed to achieve deterrence because the

injurer is virtually certain to be found liable (as when a surgeon fails to remove

a surgical tool from his patient). On the other hand, the converse problem may

arise: an individual’s harmful conduct may not be reprehensible but

nevertheless may be unlikely to result in his liability (as when a truck

inadvertently spills toxic wastes onto a highway at night).

 

Notwithstanding the preceding observations, basing the level of punitive

damages on the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct may be proper with

respect to the deterrence objective for acts leading to gains that are socially

illicit: such acts usually are considered reprehensible and, as observed in

Section 3, punitive damages may be necessary to deter them.

 

From the perspective of the punishment objective, the focus on

reprehensibility clearly is sensible, because reprehensibility of conduct is

essentially synonymous with the actor’s blameworthiness and thus with the

need for punishment.

 

Wealth of Injurers

The courts often state that a defendant’s financial condition is a relevant factor

in setting a punitive damages award, with the understanding that higher

punitive damages may be appropriate for defendants with higher wealth.

With regard to deterrence, however, damages usually should not depend on

the injurer’s wealth (see, for example, Abraham and Jeffries, 1989; Cooter,

1989, pp. 1176-1177; and Polinsky and Shavell, 1998, pp. 910-914). The

reason, in essence, is that if parties make decisions about precautions and

choice of activity based on the expected value of their liability - that is, if they

act in a risk-neutral way - their decisions will not depend on their wealth, and

thus there is no reason to link damages to wealth. This point generally applies

to corporations since, for the reason discussed at the end of Section 2, they can

be treated as risk neutral. It also applies to individuals if they are risk neutral

or have access to liability insurance.

 

A qualification is that if individuals are risk averse and cannot obtain

liability insurance, then optimal damages may depend on their wealth. To

elaborate, the optimal level of damages for such individuals tends to be lower

than that indicated by the multiplier formula presented in Section 3. (We noted

an analogous point at the end of Section 2, where we observed that, for

uninsured, risk-averse individuals who are found liable for sure, optimal

damages are less than harm.) Further, the more risk averse an individual is, the

lower the optimal level of damages. Assuming that poor individuals are more

risk averse than rich individuals, this implies that the optimal level of punitive

damages is lower for poorer individuals. Equivalently, punitive damages should

be higher for wealthier individuals.

 

Another qualification to the conclusion that a defendant’s wealth should not

bear on the level of damages needed for proper deterrence arises when an

injurer’s gain is considered socially illicit. An injurer’s wealth then may be

relevant because the sanction necessary to offset his illicit gain will be higher

the higher is his wealth, assuming that his marginal utility of money declines

with his wealth.

 

Similarly, an individual’s wealth may be relevant to the level of punitive

damages that will achieve appropriate punishment. For to impose a given

disutility on an individual, he must pay more if he is wealthy than if he is not,

assuming that his marginal utility of money declines with his wealth. But if the

injurer is a firm and the punishment objective is concerned with punishing

culpable employees, the firm’s wealth generally would not be relevant to

satisfaction of the punishment objective. This is because there is no general

reason to believe that the penalties that a firm imposes on its employees for

misbehavior will be a function of the firm’s wealth, and thus no reason to think

that achievement of the punishment objective will be served by linking punitive

damages to a firm’s wealth.

 

Whether Victims are Strangers or Customers

Although we have so far implicitly assumed that the parties harmed by injurers

are ‘strangers’ - parties who have no market or contractual relationship with

the injurer - victims of harm often are customers of defendant firms. The status

of victims either as strangers or as customers is important to consider, although

courts generally do not observe this distinction.

 

When customers might be harmed by the products (or services) they buy,

firms will tend to be concerned that customers may not be willing to pay as

much for the products or that they may stop purchasing the products altogether.

Given that firms have this market-based incentive to be attentive to the risk of

harm to their customers, the need for liability in general, and for punitive

damages in particular, to control injurer behavior is diminished. The more

knowledgeable customers are about product hazards, the less the need for

punitive (or any) damages. Obviously, this market mechanism cannot operate

if the victims are strangers to the defendant. On punitive damages and the

customer relationship, see Craswell (1996) and Polinsky and Shavell (1998, pp.

934-936).

 

Litigation Costs

Litigation costs may be relevant to the calculation of punitive damages because

they may influence the probability of suit, and therefore the chance of escaping

liability. If litigation costs are significant relative to the expected gain from suit,

the probability of suit may be small, and this fact may justify imposing punitive

damages on the injurer. However, litigation costs often will be insignificant in

relation to the expected gain from suit, so that the probability of suit may be

presumed to be very high. Then, consideration of litigation costs does not

provide a basis for imposing punitive damages.

 

Note that punitive damages should not be awarded for the purpose of

spurring suit. The damage multiplier formula is designed to achieve

appropriate deterrence when suit does not always occur, so it is not necessary

to award damages to increase the probability of suit (provided that the

probability of suit is not so low that the implied level of damages exceeds the

defendant’s ability to pay). Indeed, encouraging lawsuits would increase social

costs and therefore is socially undesirable, other things equal.

 

The tendency of higher damage awards to increase litigation costs lends

appeal to the policy of decoupling punitive damages, that is, awarding the

plaintiff only a part of the punitive damages judgment paid by the defendant,

with the remainder going to the state. Use of decoupling allows society to

discourage excessive spending on litigation (the plaintiff receives less than

otherwise) without diluting deterrence (the defendant can still be made to pay

an appropriate penalty). On punitive damages and litigation costs generally, see

Polinsky and Shavell (1998, pp. 921-923); see also Kahan and Tuckman (1995)

for a discussion of punitive damages and decoupling.

 

Insurability

The question whether liability insurance for punitive damages should be

permitted is of interest, in part because legal policy on this matter varies among

the states. The basic answer to this question is that punitive damages should be

insurable when the justification for punitive damages is that injurers might

escape liability.

 

The reasons for allowing liability insurance for punitive damages are

essentially the same as those for allowing liability insurance for compensatory

damages. These reasons are easiest to explain when liability is strict and harm

is solely monetary. In that case, the sale of liability insurance cannot hurt

potential victims, since they will be fully compensated for any loss; and the

insurance must raise the wellbeing of injurers if they elect to buy it. The

arguments for allowing liability insurance in other contexts are more

complicated. A potential qualification to all of these arguments arises if injurers

are judgment-proof; the availability of insurance could worsen injurers’

behavior in these circumstances (although insurance also could improve

matters). (For discussions of insurance and punitive damages, see Priest, 1989;

and Polinsky and Shavell, 1998, pp. 931-934.)

 

Tax Treatment

If punitive damages are imposed on an injurer as a result of his engaging in a

business activity, such damages generally are tax deductible, just as are

compensatory damages in those circumstances. This policy is socially desirable

given the deterrence objective. For if punitive damages were not deductible,

their after-tax cost to injurers would be artificially inflated relative to the costs

of taking precautions, which are deductible. Consequently, injurers would be

induced to take excessive precautions (and, for similar reasons, to be overly

deterred from participating in risky activities). The general point that damages

should be deductible, given that precaution costs are deductible, originated with

Png and Zolt (1989) and carries over to the situation when parties might escape

liability and punitive damages might be imposed as a result.

 


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