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Foreign Courts Look Askance at Punitive Damages

American Bar Association (by Debra Cassens Weiss)

The awarding of punitive damages has long been accepted in the United States, but it's rare in other countries. Most foreign courts view punitive damages as a windfall for plaintiffs, the New York Times reports. These courts say punishments should be meted out by the criminal justice system or by government regulators rather than lay jurors given to ad hoc opinions. The practice "is regarded almost universally outside the U.S. with a high degree of disfavor," lawyer Gary Born, who works in London, told the Times. As a result, foreign courts are reluctant to enforce punitive judgments obtained against foreign corporations obtained in U.S. courts. In one case last year, the Italian Supreme Court refused to enforce a $1 million judgment against the maker of a motorcycle helmet, the story says. The money was awarded to the mother of Kurt Parrott, who died in a motorcycle crash when the helmet's buckle failed and his unprotected head hit the pavement.

Nonetheless, a few foreign courts are changing their attitudes. Supreme courts in Canada and Spain have enforced punitive awards, and the Supreme Court of South Australia said it would consider enforcing such awards when cases involve "brazen and fraudulent conduct." That is no comfort to Judy Glebosky, the mother of the motorcycle rider. "A million-dollar award is really nothing," she told the Times. "It's really not enough to punish any large company in this day and age, and it certainly does not bring back Kurt."