April 2, 2012

Federal judge piles on punitive damages against Iran and Sudan: $1.67B and $236M

In the past few years we have seen a flurry of colossal punitive damages awards against Iran and Cuba in cases involving state-sponsored terrorism and human rights violations.

In one of those cases back in 2010, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth awarded $61.3 million against Iran for its role in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut.  Chief Judge Lambert has  now upped the ante in a big way, awarding another $487 million in compensatory damages and $1.67 billion in punitive damages against Iran for the same conduct.  As in the prior case, nobody expects the plaintiffs to collect on this judgment.  But Chief Judge Lambert stated in his opinion that he hopes the families of the victims find some measure of solace in his ruling.

Chief Judge Lamberth issued another symbolic opinion on the same day, awarding $79 million in compensatory damages and $236 million in punitive damages in a default judgment against the Republic of Sudan for its involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole.

Perhaps these awards will indeed provide some comfort to the victims. That certainly is a laudable goal.  But I keep wondering whether these gigantic uncontested awards might have some unforeseen consequences for punitive damages jurisprudence.  Punitive damages are supposed to be used to provide punishment and deterrence, and these awards don't seem to be serving either purpose.  Will this departure from traditional principles spill over into other cases involving more traditional civil litigation? Probably not in any direct way.  I don't foresee any court citing these rulings for their precedential or even persuasive value.  But it's impossible to measure the impact of these awards on our society's perceptions about the appropriate use (and amount) of punitive damages in the long run. 

Hat tip: The Huffington Post

Related posts:

Federal Judge Awards $300 Million In Punitive Damages Against Iran

Federal judge awards $61.3 million in punitive damages against Iran

$25 Million in Punitive Damages Against Cuba

Miami Judge Awards $393 Million in Punitive Damages Against Cuba