June 5, 2009

Sotomayor - a puzzle on punitive damages?

Greg Stohr reports for Bloomberg that "Sotomayor on High Court May Mean Looser Limits on Damage Awards." The article describes a couple of cases in which Sotomayor voted to affirm punitive awards (including the $1 billion award in Motorola Credit Corp. v. Uzan (2d Cir. 2007) 509 F.3d 74 ). The article notes, however, that the constitutional challenges to those awards may not have been very strong on the particular facts of those cases, so the rulings do not necessarily suggest hostility to court review of out-of-whack punitive damages.

But defendants in punitive damages cases might be more disturbed to hear that the judge is on record as being unfavorably disposed to legislative caps on compensatory damages. Stohr's article quotes Judge Sotomayor's 1996 comments in the Suffolk University Law Review in Boston, criticizing lawmakers who “introduced bills that place arbitrary limits on jury verdicts in personal injury cases.” She wrote that such laws are "inconsistent with the premise of the jury system,” and that laws' focus “must be shifted back to monitoring frivolous claims, uncovering pervasive misrepresentation in court and educating the public that no system of justice is perfect.” This doesn't bode well for those who rely on courts' de novo review of the constitutionality of punitive damages to protect against excessive awards.

Related musings on the effect of President Obama's replacement for Justice Souter can be found in earlier posts on this blog ("Will Justice Souter's Retirement Revolutionize Punitive Damages Litigation?"; "Souter Favored Limits on Punitive Damages" and "The Effect of Justice Souter's Retirement on Punitive Damages").