In the United States of America, there is no question that punitive damages serve to protect society from reckless and indifferent conduct by corporations. This is the case because punitive damages are not awarded to compensate any particular plaintiff for their injuries or harm, but instead, punitive damages are “purely penal in nature” and serve to “deter” wrongful conduct. Hoy v. Angelone, 554 Pa. 134, 142 (Pa. 1998). This critical distinction cannot be understated as punitive damages embody a larger concept in our legal system that holds that reckless and indifferent corporate actions warrant the imposition of a monetary penalty; one that goes beyond the harm suffered by a particular plaintiff.
For instance, in a recent case in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, a jury awarded $13.5 million in punitive damages as a result of severe injuries sustained by a woman who received a defective pelvic mesh device. Of the $13.5 million jury verdict, $10 million of the verdict constituted punitive damages. In other words, even though the jury found that the plaintiff, and her family, sustained $3.5 million in compensatory damages for the harm suffered, the total verdict was increased by $10 million in order to send a message to the defendant that acted egregiously and deserved punishment. In essence, it can be argued that punitive damages help protect society by providing a civil mechanism for sanctioning reckless corporate actions and conduct.
While the financial impact of punitive damages may be common knowledge to some, such damages may also impact the admissibility of certain evidence at the time of trial. Specifically, if punitive damages are prohibited by a judge in a case, particular types of evidence may be excluded, such as a company’s wealth, the harm to other potential victims, and sending a message to the defendant. In other words, the evidence may be significantly more limited, as a case becomes inherently limited to the issue of compensating a particular plaintiff. Hence, if punitive damages are barred, the case takes on a different character, and the information received by the jury is impacted and/or reduced. As a result, it is not uncommon for verdicts to be diminished once the risk of punitive damages becomes a non-factor.
Ultimately, punitive damages are a fundamental aspect of the American legal system, and such damages are critically important for reducing harmful corporate actions. Quite literally, a jury of one’s peers has the opportunity to punish a corporation for causing serious harm to others. As such, the next time that you hear that punitive damages were awarded in a case, it is important to remember that the verdict is not simply about providing compensation to an individual person or family, but instead, the jury explicitly sent a message that was intended to protect you and your family as well.