US.-Recht: The US. Supreme Court on punitive damages

25.04.2008921 Mal gelesen


Nachfolgend das Ergebnis des obersten US. Gerichtes zum Thema der Berechnung der Höhe von Punitive Damages / Strafschadensersatz und eine entsprechende Kommentierung durch einen Wirtschaftsjournalisten im The Economist (2003). Grundsätzlich soll das Verhältnis von Strafschadensersatz zu tatsächlichem Schaden nicht höher als 9:1 sein. Diese Entscheidung ist für beklagte Gesellschaften sehr wichtig, da sie die Möglichkeit eröffnet, unsinnig hohe Schadensersatzbeträge (zum Beispiel Verhältnis 145 zu 1 !) auf ein „normales“ Maß zu reduzieren. Die Gerichtsentscheidung, die dem nachfolgendem Artikel zugrunde liegt, finden Sie in Deutsch auch in unserer Zusammenfassung „U.S Court Decisions in 2003 / U.S. Haftungsrecht“, dort State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell in dieser NEWS.

Vorab zitieren wir noch die Entscheidung des deutschen Bundesverfassungsgerichtes vom 25.7.2003 zum Thema punitive damages und mißbräuchlicher Klagezustellung in Deutschland zur Erzeugung publizistischen Drucks

1. Die Beschwerdeführerin wendet sich mit ihrer Verfassungsbeschwerde gegen die im Wege der Rechtshilfe beantragte Zustellung einer Klage auf Schadensersatz in Höhe von 17 Mrd. US-Dollar, mit der sie vor einem Gericht der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika in Anspruch genommen werden soll. Mit ihrem Antrag auf Erlass einer einstweiligen Anordnung begehrt sie, die angegriffenen Entscheidungen außer Vollzug zu setzen.

2. Werden Verfahren vor staatlichen Gerichten in einer offenkundig mißbräuchlichen Art und Weise genutzt, um mit publizistischem Druck und dem Risiko einer Verurteilung einen Marktteilnehmer gefügig zu machen, könnte dies deutsches Verfassungsrecht verletzen.

3. Verstößt schon die Zustellung einer ausländischen Klage gegen unverzichtbare Grundsätze des freiheitlichen Rechtsstaates, so ist fraglich, ob deutsche Behörden in diesem Fall die Rechtshilfe mit dem Hinweis leisten dürfen, der Betroffene habe noch im weiteren Verlauf des Verfahrens - etwa im Rahmen der Anerkennung des ausländischen Titels nach § 328 Abs. 1 ZPO - die Möglichkeit, den Verstoß zu rügen. Denn aus der Zustellung ergeben sich für den Empfänger Rechtsfolgen, die geeignet sind, ihn in seinen grundrechtlich geschützten Positionen zu beeinträchtigen (Haager Zustellungsübereinkommen)

America’s Supreme Court struck a blow for common sense on April 7th. In throwing out a stratospheric punitive-damages award by a Utah court against an insurance company, the justices put an end to some of their nightmares about telephone-number jury verdicts. But some lawyers are not so happy. “Defensible or not”, lamented Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor who argued for the plaintiff before the Supreme Court, “court’s fascination, not to say obsession, with the “number theory” of punitive damages seems here to stay.

Courts award punitive damages to punish and deter reprehensible conduct by defendants, over and above compensation to wounded plaintiffs. In this case, the original court found that State Farm, an insurer, had refused in bad faith to settle a claim when one of its policyholders, Curtis Campbell, killed somebody in a car accident. Mr. Campbell won USD 1 Million in compensation – and USD 145 Millions in punitive damages. The insurance company said the court, had engaged in a “pattern of trickery and deceit”, even though the plaintiff’s lawyers could find nobody else in Utah who had been similarly treated.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to Utah with clear instructions that the punitive damages should be cut to USD 1 Million or so. The decision also contained three guidelines for future cases.

o First, the court said that “a defendant should be punished for the conduct that harmed the plaintiff”, not for being an unsavoury individual or business”.
o Second, defendants should not be subject to excessive fines just because they are rich.
o Third Mr. Tribe’s “number theory”: The court noted that few awards that exceeded “a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages” would be constitutional.

These are honeyed words to the ears of many companies. Last year the top 50 punitive-damages award totalled USD 32,6 billion, up from USD 3,2 billion in 2001. The ratio of punitive to compensatory damges also climbed: In 2001 the median punitive award was 2,3 times the median compensatory award; in 2002 it was 4,5 times.

As these data show, most punitive-damages awards meet the Supreme Court’s single-digit guideline already. But a handful of headline-grabbing verdicts, such as a USD 290 Millions award in California against Ford, are now likely to be toppled. Ted Boutrous, a lawyer representing Ford, believes the State Farm ruling requires that the award against Ford be cut to at most USD 5 Millions, to match the compensatory damages awarded by the trial court.

Yet, although pleasing to corporate lawyers, the Surpeme Court’s guideline may restrict the ability of punitive-damages courts to promote economic efficiency. Economists such as Mitchell Polinsky, of Stanford Law School, and Steven Shavell, of Harvard Law School, argue that to deter harmful conduct, punitive damages should be equivalent to the amount of harm caused, multiplied by the inverse of the probability of detection. If, for example, a company is caught only every fifth time is pollutes a river, then when it is caught a jury fixing damages should multiply the value of harm done by five. If it awards less, the company will not be sufficiently deterred, because it does not face the full cost of its actions.

The Supreme Court’s single-digit rule may thus weaken deterrence in cases where a defendant is likely to be caught less than once in ten times. Is this a problem in practice? Mr. Shavell says it may not matter if, as he believes, “ratios larger than those in the single digits rarely fit the facts.” Other academics at the interstices of law and economics have conducted studies showing that juries cannot calcualte effective deterrence: Estimating the risk of detection is a pretty tall order. Mr. Shavell argues that the single-digit rule could stop juries returning “completely irresponsible verdicts” based on moral intuitions about corporate wealth and sin.

Not everybody believes that the Supreme Court has closed the door on large verdicts, irresponsible or otherwise. Mr. Tribe believes that juries may still impose hefty fines on defendants in egregious cases. Robert Peck of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America says that the single-digit guideline does not apply when plaintiffs have been bereaved or inured. If the courts agree with him, tobacco, asbestos, medical-malpractice and product-liability suits whould all be unaffected. The gold mine may not be exhausted yet.