Future of Punitive Damages in Mass Tort

Class action lawsuits and mass tort cases are known for punitive damages. Mass tort lawyers file suit against large companies that are causing harm to a large number of people. Usually, this behavior is reprehensible. The juries in these cases want to punish the defendant.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to punish someone for doing something wrong. Isn’t that the whole point of a lawsuit? But at the same time, mass tort lawyers see the writing on the wall. The courts are starting to limit just how much we can punish these defendants.

Since 1950, the Courts have been passing laws that limit the ways in which corporate defendants can be punished. Some argue that this is because of lobbyist groups who have influence over the government. Proponents of tort reform claim that they’re just trying to protect due process.

It’s important that you understand these changes in mass tort reform. If you’re a plaintiff in a mass tort case, you don’t want to be deluded about the kinds of damages you may receive. Even if you and your lawyer think you’re entitled to millions, you’re at the mercy of something called judicial review.

What is the Reason for Tort Reform?

In mass tort cases, the jury really has no limit on how much they can award a plaintiff. Sure, the plaintiff’s attorney sets forth a list of damages. But they also ask for punitive damages.

Punitive damages are intended to do three (3) things:

  • Compensated the plaintiff
  • Act as a deterrent to other companies
  • Punish the defendant for his behavior

When it comes to awarding punitive damages, however, a lot of people believe juries take it too far. For a long time, juries were given unlimited discretion when it came to punishing corporate defendants.

Now, all punitive damage awards in mass tort cases require judicial review. Judges are also given certain guidelines to determine if punitive damage awards are reasonable. It’s their job to make sure these damages are not unconstitutionally excessive.

Over the last fifty years, courts have put rules into place to make sure punitive damages awards are in line with common sense and fairness.

What are Some of the Limits on Punitive Damages?

The courts can’t do anything to make juries find for the defendants. However, they have put things into place to limit the amount of money a jury can award a plaintiff. They want to make sure punitive damage awards are based in reality.

Courts require that the number of damages awarded is related to the actual harm inflicted. So, if someone issuing a company for intangible injuries, they can’t expect to receive millions in punitive damages. The emphasis is on non-injury economic cases.

Judge now has the duty of reviewing punitive damage awards to make sure they’re not excessive. If they think they are excessive, they can dismiss them or reduce them. This is why you see so many cases where astronomical punitive damages awards are never paid. The recent Monsanto litigation involving Round Up weed killer is a perfect example of this.

Who Does Tort Reform Actually Help?

At first glance, it seems like tort reform only helps defendants. And, for the most part, this is true. However, there are a lot of benefits that come from mass tort reform. Some of these benefits include:

  • Encouraging attorneys and juries to award more in compensatory damages
  • Preventing the assets of defendants from being swallowed up by early cases
  • Avoiding multiple punitive damages awards for the same behavior
  • Parties with no wrongdoing are protected
  • Preventing real-world consequences like workers being penalized by punished companies

Overall, you can argue that tort reform helps all parties involved. It makes the cases be about the real issues. People do deserve to be compensated for their injuries. But at a certain point, punitive damages have to be controlled. Otherwise, corporate defendants will be forced to file bankruptcy which helps nobody.

Some of the industries that have been hit hard by punitive damages awards include:

  • Tobaccos
  • Asbestos
  • Dangerous drugs
  • Lead paint

There are new potential giants being sued as we speak that will be hit with heavy punitive damages awards. The pharmaceutical industry will be next with the wave of opioid cases. And this may justified. It’s going to be interesting to see how the courts handle these awards. With the number of pharmaceutical lobbyists in Washington, a lot of mass tort lawyers are waiting to see how this plays out.