August 9, 2008

"Punitive Damages and French Public Policy"

Georges A. J. Cavalier, Jr. has posted a working paper on SSRN entitled "Punitive Damages and French Public Policy." Here's the abstract:

When asked whether French law admits punitive damages, Professor Durry, a prominent French academic, responded: "No, No, and No!; three times No! But..." These few words seem to pretty much illustrate where French law stood several years ago regarding punitive damages.

In French legal terminology, one generally opposes "punitive damages" to "compensatory damages." Compensatory damages repair the victim's injury, as if he or she had incurred no loss at all. They are sometimes just symbolic or token sums. In this school of thought, the indemnification must in no way be enrichment for the victim. Contrary to compensatory damages, punitive damages are outrageous sums awarded in excess of compensatory damages to punish a party for outrageous conduct.

For a long time now, punitive damages have been a common law specialty. The US Supreme Court repeats again and again that the US Constitution imposes certain limits, limits that forbid only "grossly excessive" punitive damages. Let us give you a recent example: in a case tried on February 20, 2007, the representative of a certain Jesse Williams, who died from smoking cigarettes manufactured by Phillip Morris, was awarded $821,000 in compensatory damages, and $79,5 million in punitive damages. One major question that could have been debated in court was whether this 100-to-1 ratio constituted a "grossly excessive" amount.
Hat tip: TortsProf Blog.