The award of millions of dollars in damages smacks of "I've won the lottery"
Clayton Cramer says the above in a discussion about punitive damages awarded in lawsuits.
Sasha Volokh offers the following in response:
Why does it matter that it seems like a lottery (which, as far as I can tell, only means a large payment that you might get with some probability). If these damage awards are necessary to deter or punish bad conduct, then they're justifiable, and it shouldn't make a difference that they might enrich certain plaintiffs who are otherwise undeserving. After all, the actual lottery also rewards the undeserving, but surely there's nothing wrong with giving people huge payments unless you can also tell a story why that money should have gone elsewhere.
As a non-lawyer, I would like to offer the following:
1. Why should an award of punitive damages be like a lottery at all? Based on the facts, evidence and law, the defendant either deserves to have to pay them or not. Why are there any odds at all? Juries. (Whether the plaintiff deserves to receive them is a different question.)
2. When punitive damages are awarded, juries seem to like to award truly staggering damages. It's almost like a jury wants to destroy a defendant, not merely punish.
3. There was some discussion about the woman who sued McDonald's over hot coffee she spilled on herself. From what I understand, the reason punitive damages were awarded to the plaintiff was because there were at least 700 previous burn incidents over the previous 10 years and McDonald's had never taken any corrective action. If McDonald's inaction was truly egregious, why did this plaintiff alone get awarded the punitive damages but none of the prior accident victims? Was it because she was number 701 as opposed to number 700? Will the next burn victim get punitive damages too? Will they be just as high? (Higher? Lower?) This looks like winning a prize for being the one millionth shopper at a store (another type of lottery).
Bottom line: Having punitive damages appear to be awarded in a lottery style (random) gives the impression (and perhaps actuality) of inconsistent and arbitrary justice.
Some additional thoughts: Justice did prevail eventually in the McDonald's case (sort of) - the "excessive" punitive damages awarded to the plaintiff were reduced significantly on appeal. The trial jury ruled that McDonald's was 80 percent at fault and the plaintiff was 20 percent at fault. From what I read of the case, I would have been hard pressed to find McDonald's at fault at all because the woman caused the coffee to be spilled on herself. If I had to rule against McDonald's, it would have been a 20/80 split instead of an 80/20 one.