Two recent Florida court cases have affirmed punitive damages awarded in product liability litigation. One of those involved a $12.3 million punitive damage award against a tobacco company in a smoking-related death (that was a decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeal) and another involves $22.5 million punitive damage award against the same company in a different smoking-related death (about which the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear defendant’s appeal on a claim of the award being unconstitutionally excessive).
Punitive damages, as outlined in F.S. 768.73, are those that are awarded to punish the defendant, rather than simply compensate the victim for losses (which the purpose of compensatory damages). Punitive damages are awarded in addition to one’s actual damages, but only in certain circumstances. It is by no means a given.
According to a 2002 study by researchers at Cornell University, punitive damages are awarded at 3.5 percent of jury trials won by plaintiffs and 5.3 percent of bench trials (before a judge) won by plaintiffs. The highest rate of punitive damage awards occurs (as in these tobacco litigation cases), where an individual sues a large corporation in a bench trial. Under those circumstances, 6.7 percent of plaintiffs are awarded punitive damages. Cases involving fraud and intentional tort were the most likely to result in an award of punitive damages. Continue reading →