U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

NCJRS Virtual Library

The Virtual Library houses over 235,000 criminal justice resources, including all known OJP works.
Click here to search the NCJRS Virtual Library

Decision to Award Punitive Damages: An Empirical Study

NCJ Number
Journal of Legal Analysis Volume: 2 Issue: 2 Dated: Fall 2010 Pages: 577-620
Theodore Eisenberg; Michael Heise; Nicole L. Waters; Martin T. Wells
Date Published
44 pages
This article gives an overview of punitive damages.
Empirical studies have consistently shown that punitive damages are rarely awarded, with rates of about 3 to 5 percent of plaintiff trial wins. Using the 2005 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Civil Justice Survey, this article shows that knowing in which cases plaintiffs sought punitive damages transforms the picture of punitive damages. Not accounting for whether punitive damages were sought obscures the meaningful punitive damages rate, the rate of awards in cases in which they were sought, by a factor of nearly 10, and obfuscates a more explicable pattern of awards than has been reported. Punitive damages were surprisingly infrequently sought, with requests found in about 10 percent of tried cases that plaintiffs won. State laws restricting access to punitive damages were significantly associated with rates of seeking punitive damages. Punitive damages were awarded in about 30 percent of the plaintiff trial wins in which they were sought. Awards were most frequent in cases of intentional tort, with a punitive award rate of over 60 percent. Greater harm corresponded to a greater probability of an award: the size of the compensatory award was significantly associated with whether punitive damages were awarded, with a rate of approximately 60 percent for cases with compensatory awards of $1 million or more. Regression models correctly classify about 70 percent or more of the punitive award request outcomes. (Published Abstract)