“Punitive damages pose an acute danger of arbitrary deprivation of property.” –Honda Motor Co. v. Oberg, 512 U.S. 415, 432 (1994)

A recent case from Florida’s 11th Circuit Court — Moore v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA-000858 — demonstrates that trial courts and potential defendants need to take this warning to heart.

Joan Moore smoked for over 40 years before being diagnosed with smoking-related cancer, and sought both compensatory and punitive damages related to her injuries. Prior to the trial, Moore died from unrelated causes.

Compensatory damages almost always precede the award of punitive damages. That was not the case here. After hearing the evidence, the Florida jury awarded Moore’s estate $0 in compensatory damages but indicated that punitive damages may be warranted. Despite an objection from the defendant’s counsel, the trial judge permitted the jury to hear the issue of punitive damages, which the jury returned in the amount of $1 million.

There are any number of legal problems with such an award. Indeed, it ignores much of the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance on punitive damages awards. Over the past 25 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that an award of punitive damages must be tied to, and proportional to, the harm the plaintiff suffered and cannot be used simply to punish a defendant for harm to others. Since the jury found that Moore suffered no damage attributable to R.J. Reynolds, it follows that this award was tied to harm to other people.

But, the award — not unlike those in the recent glyphosate/RoundUp litigation in California — seems to represent yet another example of the courtroom serving as a venue for economic punishment rather than compensating individuals who have suffered actual harm. For all the legal reasons this award should be overturned, defendants still need to consider the signal that judge and juries are sending regarding their willingness to award large sums of punitive damages in marginal liability cases. Cases presenting the possibility of punitive damages liability need to be taken seriously, even when the risk of a finding of liability on the substantive claims seems low.