May 30, 2009

Miami Judge Awards $393 Million in Punitive Damages Against Cuba

The Associated Press is reporting that a trial judge in Miami has awarded $1 billion, including $393 million in punitive damages, against Cuba, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara. (Presumably Guevara's estate is the actual defendant, not Guevara himself, who was executed in Bolivia in 1967.) The plaintiff claims that Guevara and the Castros imprisoned his father after the 1959 Cuban revolution and caused him to commit suicide.

As the AP story notes, the plaintiff is not likely to collect any portion of this punitive award. So in that sense, the amount of the award is irrelevant. The judge said he awarded the eye-popping amount because he wanted to "send a message." In my view, however, absurdly high awards like this send an unfortunate message to the American public that no amount of punitive damages is too high. Awards like this receive major publicity, even though the appellate reversals of such awards often go largely unnoticed (except on this blog, of course). As a result, many jurors have become conditioned to believe that our legal system freely allows them to award hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in punitive damages. While such awards may provide lots of business for appellate lawyers, ultimately they are a burden on the American economy.