A Florida jury awarded the widow of a deceased smoker $23 Billion in punitive damages against RJ Reynolds.
Here is what confuses me -- the $23 billion is obviously not the damages to the woman and her family directly (that was a separate much lower figure) but is somehow calculated as a penalty for RJ Reynolds pursuing bad practices with everyone. This has to be a penalty for harm to many people, perhaps to all of RJ Reynolds customers. So what happens when there is a second suit? Can another person get yet another $23 billion, forcing RJ Reynolds to essentially pay twice for the same bad practices? Or if a million other ex-customers sued, could RJ Reynolds be forced to pay $23 quadrillion in total? Or should past punitive damages for the same actions be deducted from future awards, saying something like "RJ Reynolds should be penalized $23 billion but that was already paid out to someone else so the net in this suit is zero."
I have no problem suing for actual harm and have opposed limits on regular damage awards -- who can say in advance what the actual damages might have been? Damage caps tend to be a poor substitute for cleaning up the real problems, which include junk science, no penalty for frivolous suits, and presumption of guilt against deep-pocketed defendants. But I have never, ever understood punitive damages.
Although the main purpose of tort litigation is supposed to be making victims whole, so-called punitive damages explicitly aim to punish wrongdoers. That is usually the function of the criminal justice system, which therefore provides additional protections for defendants, including a higher standard of proof, stricter evidence rules, and penalties prescribed by statute. Attorneys seeking punitive damages do not have to contend with any of those safeguards.
The very concept of punitive damages is oxymoronic, since actual damages (a.k.a. compensatory damages) are a measure of the harm caused by a tort. Punitive damages, by contrast, express a jury's outrage at the defendant's conduct and may be completely unmoored from the injury suffered by the plaintiff (who nevertheless gets the money). In this case, the punitive damages are about 1,400 times the actual damages, which the jury put at $16 million. That huge mutiple seems to violate Florida law, which caps the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages at three or four unless "the defendant had a specific intent to harm the claimant"—a description that clearly does not apply to a tobacco company with millions of customers, even if it prevented them from making informed decisions by hiding the dangers posed by its products.