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Punitive Damages

The United States Supreme Court has addressed the vexing problems with punitive damages again and again over the last twenty years. While each case provided guidance to lower courts, those courts continued to interpret and apply the guidance differently or, in some cases (including in Oregon), seemingly ignored the guidance altogether. In the last term, the Court decided Exxon Shipping Company v. Baker, where it held that a ratio of 1:1 between compensatory and punitive damages is a fair upper limit in maritime cases. Interestingly, the rationale for the Court’s conclusion in Baker was not grounded in considerations unique to federal maritime law, but in considerations applicable in all cases. This presentation, then, will focus on the Court’s punitive damages jurisprudence and, particularly, on how the considerations that drove the decision in Baker should logically drive the future review of punitive damages awards in all cases and, moreover, why the approach taken in Baker should lead courts to reach the same conclusion outside the maritime context – a ratio of 1:1 between compensatory and punitive damages is a maximum upper limit in all but the most unusual cases.