April 22, 2008

Should Public Entities Be Liable for Punitive Damages?

The Ithaca Journal reports on a recent $1 million punitive damage award against the Ithaca Public School District because the plaintiff student was harassed by other students. The article reports that the entire yearly budget for the school district is $95 million. Thus, more than one percent of the entire year's budget will go to a single student. A glance at the website for the school district shows that there are 12 schools and over 5,000 students in the school district. Thus, the other 5,000 plus students end up having to suffer because of the failures to act by school officials. This brings up a recurring issue in cases against public entities where the public (taxpayers) end up paying for the mistakes made by the public employees. This is not to say that people injured by a public entity should not be compensated. However, it does raise the serious question whether punitive damages should also be awarded. California, for example, does not permit punitive damages against public entities. (See Cal. Gov. Code section 818.)

[Observation by Lisa Perrochet, 10:03 a.m.: One thought to consider is that public entities are arguably directly accountable to the public in a way that private entities are not, so while punitive damages are used to make private entitites change behavior that harms the public, voters have other means to correct government behavior that harms them, without saddling themselves with an enormous financial debt.]