Both the BBC and the German media (g) have reported on the $23.6 billion verdict a Florida jury handed down against R.J. Reynolds tobacco company for damages she suffered after her husband died of lung cancer. The jury found that R.J. Reynolds had purposely concealed the addictive and harmful nature of smoking. Most of the $26 billion is in punitive damages, which can be awarded in Florida if the jury finds that "[t]he defendant’s conduct was so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct."
These sorts of stories come out a few times a year, and are always covered by the German media. They serve an important function for the German journalistic class: they instruct obedient German news consumers that the American jury system is a crazy lottery in which ignorant, envious bumpkins are given free rein to milk large corporations on behalf of other ignorant, envious bumpkins.
By implication, therefore, these stories support the Panglossian narrative of German superiority. After all, am deutschen Wesen soll sich dereinst die Welt genesen -- the German way will heal the world. There are no juries in German civil trials, nor are there any punitive damages in the American sense. German judges award damages according to fixed schedules, and the amounts are smaller than American courts.
To apply the necessary corrective: No, the tobacco company will of course never have to pay the $23.6 billion verdict. An appeals court, following rules laid down by the American Supreme Court, will reduce it to a tiny fraction of that size. Punitive damages awards are extremely rare in American courts, and usually modest in size. A recent study sums up the situation:
Contrary to popular myth, punitive damages are rarely awarded.
- In 2005, the most recent year studied by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), punitive damages were awarded in only 5 percent of civil cases where plaintiffs prevailed at trial.
Most punitive damage awards are modest in amount.
- In 2005, the median overall punitive damage amount awarded to plaintiff winners in civil cases was $64,000.15 The median punitive damage award for all tort cases was $55,000.16
- In 76 percent of the 632 civil trials with both punitive and compensatory awards, the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages was 3 to 1 or less.
Of the 45 states that allow punitive damages in this country, at least one-third have enacted some form of cap, or limit, on the ability of judges and juries to award punitive damages. Over 30 state legislatures have made it more difficult for injured consumers to prove punitive damages by raising the standard of proof required for awarding them. Several states order victims to pay a portion of punitive damages into state-designated funds. Other states require or permit bifurcated trials where the injured person is forced to essentially try a case twice, first proving liability and second, arguing the size of the award. And in some states, juries are prevented from deciding the amount of a punitive damages award -- only the judge is permitted do that.
That's been today's corrective to the German media.