Many may have read about the $23.6 billion jury verdict against R.J. Reynolds in favor of the widow whose husband died of lung cancer some years ago. It is important to know that punitive damage verdicts are extremely rare. When a jury does render such a decision, it is because they are outraged by the defendant’s conduct and decided to send a very strong message to the community. It is one of most important legal options that exist in our society.
If a jury of our peers in a civil case cannot speak to and ultimately punish a defendant for bad conduct that harms or kills people, and then who will do so? It is one of the grand characteristics of our country that regular citizens can try and correct a wrong done by a person or a corporation.
Of course, the vast majority of times the defendant appeals such a verdict and many times an appeals court overturns or reduces it, or by compromise the parties reduce it. And often a defendant cannot even pay the punitive damage award, so other than the message the jury sends, the Plaintiff never receives any punitive damages.
Finally, most people do not know that each state has a different law as to what a Plaintiff must prove regarding punitive damages. In Ohio, unfortunately, as a result of tort deform that the legislature passed some years ago, our punitive damage statute caps money awards and thus it is very limited in purpose. In my view then, even if a jury awards it, the limits do very little to stop, thwart, or punish a defendant from engaging bad conduct.