University of Southern California

Saving Lives Through Punitive Damages

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Article by Joni Hersch & W. Kip Viscusi
From Volume 83, Number 2 (January, 2010)

is Article proposes that the value of statistical life (“VSL”) be used to set the total damages amount needed for deterrence when punitive damages are warranted in wrongful death cases. The appropriate level of total damages should be achieved by adjusting the value of punitive damages. Compensatory damages should not be distorted to establish the total damages level needed for efficient deterrence. Attempts to introduce hedonic damages as a compensatory damages component, and proposals to use the VSL on a routine basis when setting compensatory damages awards, are misguided and will undermine the insurance and compensation functions of compensatory damages. The U.S. Supreme Court’s focus on punitive damages ratios is misplaced, as it is the total damages amount, not the ratio, that is instrumental. The criteria for evaluating punitive damages in bodily injury cases should be different from the criteria used in property damage cases. The composition of compensatory damages is especially important in bodily injury cases. Empirical analysis of current state court awards in bodily injury cases shows the desired positive relationship between punitive damages awards and the nonpecuniary loss.

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