Punitive Damages Essay

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PUNITIVE DAMAGE AWARDS - AN EXPANDED JUDICIAL ROLE JAMES I. D. GHIARDI* INTRODUCTION Juries are often asked to award punitive damages with very limited guidance from the courts.1 As a result, the punitive award, in a particular instance, may be "capricious, undeserved and unrestrained." 2 When allegedly excessive punitive damage awards become the focus of judicial scrutiny, courts grapple with the propriety of reducing those awards, as well as with the question of to what extent they should be reduced.' II. A. ROLE OF THE TRIAL JUDGE Is the Case an Appropriate One for Punitive Damages? It is the responsibility of the trial judge, in the first instance, to determine whether the case is appropriate for punitive damages, i.e. whether the question of punitive damages will be submitted to the jury.' The main focus of that determination is the nature of the defendant's conduct. The trial judge looks for evidence that the defendant acted intentionally, outrageously, recklessly or with conscious disregard for the rights of others. Such conduct is generally deemed sufficiently egregious to warrant the imposition of punitive damages. If the facts can support such a finding, the punitive damage issue is allowed to go to the jury.' Once the question has been submitted to the jury, the generally accepted rule is that the jury, in its sole, unfettered discretion, determines whether to award punitive damages and in what amount.' "It is the long settled and uniformly adhered to rule in our jurisprudence that the amount of punitory or exemplary damages is solely within the discretion of the jury, and, no matter what the sum of their * Professor of Law, Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee, WI. The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Ann M. Maher (J.D. 1988) while a third-year student at Marquette University Law School. 1.
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