Trends in Punitive Damages

Preliminary Data from Cook County, Illinois, and San Francisco, California

by Deborah R. Hensler, Erik Moller

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The Institute for Civil Justice is currently updating its jury verdict database, which includes information on civil jury outcomes, including punitive damage awards, for Cook County, Illinois, and San Francisco, California, for the period 1960-1994. This paper presents the preliminary results of the analyses of trends in punitive damage awards in these state trial court jurisdictions. Changes in the number of awards reflect, in part, changes in the number of cases tried to verdict in each of these jurisdictions; these changes, in turn, reflect changes in court jurisdiction, statutory and case law, and, probably, litigation strategies. Changes in the percentages of cases in which punitive damages were awarded are, therefore, a better indicator of the likelihood of punitive damages being awarded over time. The results suggest that the likelihood of such awards has varied over time, rising significantly during the 1980s, and falling back more recently. They also show that punitive damages are awarded more frequently in some cases than others: from 1960 to 1994, punitive damages were most likely to be awarded in intentional tort cases and business and contract disputes.

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