Cornell Law Review Volume 94 Issue 2

Retributive Damages: A Theory of Punitive Damages as Intermediate Sanction

Not long ago, Professor Cass Sunstein and his co-authors lamented that our legal culture lacks “a full normative account of the relationship between retributive goals and punitive damages.” This Article offers that full normative account—through a theory of “retributive damages” as intermediate civil sanctions. Under the retributive damages framework, when people defy certain legal obligations, the state may either seek to punish them through traditional criminal law or make available the sanction of retributive damages, which would be credited against any further criminal sanctions imposed by the state for the same misconduct. Accompanied by an intermediate level of procedural safeguards, retributive damages statutes would empower private parties to act on behalf of the state to seek the imposition of what is in effect a civil fine determined largely by the reprehensibility of the defendant’s misconduct. The base amount of the fine would assess a percentage of the defendant’s wealth (or net value for entities) that increases with the reprehensibility of the defendant’s misconduct, an assessment informed by guidelines and commentary provided by the state. The total retributive damages award should also include gain-stripping amounts, if any, in excess of compensatory damages, as well as lawyers’ fees and a modest and fixed award for the plaintiff for bringing the matter to the public’s attention. These payments (to the state, the plaintiff, and the lawyers) together constitute a sensible way to structure the aspect of extra-compensatory damages designed to advance the public’s interest in retributive justice.


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