The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down as grossly excessive the $2 million punitive damages award won by an Alabama doctor dissatisfied with the touch up paint job on his BMW sedan.
Essentially, the high court said that the moon and the sky is not the limit. Jury awards can be too high. Telling juries to award whatever you feel like is not only whimsical, it is also a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Oddly enough, many of Houstons personal injury attorneys (the very people who often argue for unlimited punitive awards) helped foster the courts landmark decision. A few summers ago the Houston trial lawyers put up billboards along Houstons highways declaring Prison is for common criminals, punitive damages are for corporate criminals.
The U. S. Supreme Court agreed that awarding punitive damages is an appropriate measure for deterring quasi-criminal behavior. However, the court took that argument one step further. The court said the punishment must fit the crime, the civil sanction should approximate the likely criminal punishment for the same conduct, and accused wrong doers ought to be given at least some of the same rights as the guy charged with sticking up a convenience store.
In other words, the trial lawyers argument boomeranged against them.
Over the years, punitive damages have become random bludgeons, distorting our civil justice system and intimidating the operators of small and large businesses alike. Juries need sentencing guidelines with clearly defined limits.
The Supreme Court decision is not only a victory for common sense and restraint, it is also a victory for school boards, blood banks, boys clubs and all those little guys who cant survive the mere threat of an outrageous punitive damage hit.
Jon Opelt, Executive Director
Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse/Houston