November 7, 2011

Ninth Circuit allows punitive damages under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (Ditullio v. Boehm)

This Ninth Circuit opinion addresses the question whether a plaintiff may recover punitive damages under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which allows the victims of human trafficking to sue for "damages and reasonable attorneys fees."

The majority opinion, authored by Judge Fletcher, holds that punitive damages are available under the TVPA because it creates a tort claim, and the common law generally permits punitive damages for tort claims.  The opinion relies heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Smith v. Wade, which held that punitive damages are available for section 1983 claims.  Judge Callahan's dissenting opinion states that the legislative history of the TVPA shows that Congress deliberately decided not to authorize recovery of punitive damages under that statute.  The Ninth Circuit appears to be the first federal circuit court to weigh in on this issue.  If another circuit adopts Judge Callahan's point of view, the issue may end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.