December 21, 2010

Law professors win $5M in punitive damages

The ABA Journal reports that two law professors won a large jury verdict against West Publishing, including compensatory damages of $90,000 each and punitive damages of $2.5 million each.  That's a ratio of nearly 28 to 1.

The ABA Journal story says the professors, who authored a West treatise on criminal procedure, asked for a pay increase to continue providing the annual updates for the treatise.  They claim West refused to increase their pay but continued to list them as the authors of the updates, even though the work was performed by others and was below their standards.

If I were one of these professors, I wouldn't be spending my millions just yet.  This doesn't sound like the type of misconduct that could come close to supporting such a high ratio of punitive to compensatory damages.  Even if this case involves intentional misconduct (and I don't know whether it does), it doesn't seem to implicate the other indicia of reprehensibility such as physical harm, or preying upon a financial vulnerable victim.  It sounds more like a garden variety fraud case with purely economic damages, for which a low single-digit ratio would be the maximum.  I'd be very surprised if the punitive damages could survive post-trial and appellate review. 

Three Geeks and a Law Blog has links to the complaint, the verdict form, and the judgment.