October 2012 Vol. 111 No. 1 THE REVIEW

A Financial Economic Theory of Punitive Damages

Robert J. Rhee

This Article provides a financial economic theory of punitive damages. The core problem, as the Supreme Court acknowledged in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, is not the systemic amount of punitive damages in the tort system; rather, it is the risk of outlier outcomes. Low frequency, high severity awards are unpredictable, cause financial distress, and beget social cost. By focusing only on offsetting escaped liability, the standard law and economics theory fails to account for the core problem of variance. This Article provides a risk arbitrage analysis of the relationship between variance, litigation valuation, and optimal deterrence. Starting with settlement dynamics, it shows that punitive damages create problematic risk arbitrage opportunities, which systemically produce under- and overvaluation of cases. These effects yield inefficient pricing in the litigation system. Properly conceptualized and applied, punitive damages can mitigate risk arbitrage that skews actual results from the prescriptions of optimal liability and deterrence. The modern Supreme Court jurisprudence is flawed because it is overbroad. Single-digit multiplier caps underdeter defendants in most cases of ordinary liability because punitive damages do not sufficiently offset a defendant's risk arbitrage opportunity gained from a lower litigation risk exposure. When liability is catastrophic, however, punitive damages overdeter defendants, even with a single-digit ratio limit, because they impart the severe economic cost of financial distress in addition to the monetary cost of the judgment. These additional economic costs must be credited toward the calculus of cost internalization and optimal deterrence. Thus, a calibrated risk-based theory is needed to support legal limitations on punitive damages.

   //  VIEW PDF
& Other Current Events

Speedy Trial as a Viable Challenge to Chronic Underfunding in Indigent-Defense Systems

Across the country, underresourced indigent-defense systems create delays in taking cases to trial...

A Blended Approach to Reducing the Costs of Shareholder Litigation

Multiforum litigation and federal securities law class actions impose heavy costs on corporations and...

The Scope of Precedent

The scope of Supreme Court precedent is capacious. Justices of the Court commonly defer to sweeping rationales...

Reinventing Copyright and Patent

Intellectual property systems all over the world are modeled on a one-size-fits-all principle. However...

Protecting Whistleblower Protections in the Dodd-Frank Act

In 2008, the United States fell into its worst economic recession in over seventy years. In response,...
MAILING LIST
Sign Up to Join Our Mailing List