Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



The doctrine of punitive damages truly is an ancient legal concept that inexplicably has evaded commitment to the archives of history. Irrespective of the questionable validity of the doctrine at early common law, the simple fact remains that none of the historical justifications supports the punitive damage theory in today's tort reparations system. The quest to bestow increasing compensation no longer can justify punitive damage awards because actual damages currently recoverable compensate plaintiffs more than adequately for every conceivable element of physical, emotional, or imagined injury. The desire to inflict punishment, likewise, represents an insupportable basis for awarding quasi-criminal fines in a civil context, and is inconsistent with ancient and modern jurisprudence because the civil law historically has been premised upon the concept of compensation and not penal retribution...

Part II of this Article traces the evolution of the punitive dam-age theory, including ancient origins and current status. Part III explores the various justifications theorized in support of the doctrine's present viability. Part IV analyzes the patchwork applications and conflicting standards that measure conduct warranting an award of punitive damages, the treatment of vicariously liable corporate defendants, and other factors that affect the doctrine.This part emphasizes that punitive damages are awarded on the basis of highly questionable rationale and in an absurdly confusing and noticeably destructive manner. Part V argues for the complete abolition of the punitive damage concept: "ratio potest allegari deficiente lege". In the absence of complete abolition of punitive damages, part VI asserts the urgent need for immediate stringent limitations on a doctrine that currently operates as an undisciplined and unfettered juggernaut of destruction in the civil tort system. Responsible jurisprudence, however, argues forcefully in favor of relegating this legal dinosaur to an era that long since has passed.