With decision no. 16601/2017, the Joint Divisions of the Italian Supreme Court – the most authoritative judicial body which provides uniform interpretation of the laws through a substantial harmonisation of the jurisprudence – held that the common law doctrine of punitive damages is compatible with Italian legal system.
For reasons of public policy, Italian Courts have so far rejected recognition of foreign judgements awarding punitive damages - tailored to punish and deter the wrongdoing - on the ground that they do not reflect the concept of civil liability, aimed at restoring the injured party rather than punishing the wrongdoer (Supreme Court, no.1183/2007; 1781/2012).
Recently, this tendency has been partially reconsidered: the Supreme Court held that the punitive function of damages is not in conflict with general principles of Italian law since, in the last few decades, several provisions with punitive function have been introduced. Furthermore, the evolution of the concept of public policy - no longer considered as merely domestic limit to foreign judgements but encompassing a guarantee umbrella of core values provided at a supranational level - has contributed to unlock foreign doctrines that, in any case, must be compatible with Italian Constitutional law (Joint Divisions, no. 9100/2015; Simple Division, no. 7613/2015).
Moving from these reasonings, in the case under examination the Joint Division made a step further: in the current legal system, the purpose of civil liability is not limited to restoring the victim’s assets. Since the functions of deterring and punishing the wrongdoer are internal to the system itself, foreign judgements awarding punitive damages are not ontologically incompatible with Italian law and, accordingly, may be recognised provided that they have been rendered in a country that affords legislative grounds ensuring (i) typicality of cases in which punitive damages may be awarded; (ii) predictability of the punishment and its quantitative limits. Indeed, recognising Courts shall verify the effects that the foreign judgement may produce in Italy by checking compatibility with public policy and proportionality of the liquidation in the concrete circumstances.
Despite the unquestionable value of this decision, bill no. 1063A – to be approved by the Italian Senate – may result in a curb to recognition of foreign judgements awarding punitive damages. According to said bill, Courts will equitably assess non-material damages on the basis of tables containing the relevant parameters: if, in relation to said parameters, damages awarded in the country of origin appear exceeding the amounts which could be awarded by application of the criteria upon which the parameters are set, recognition will be probably denied.