If there is an anti-Nader — a crusading lawyer passionately devoted to the pro-business cause — it is Theodore Olson. One of the most influential Supreme Court advocates and a former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, Olson is best known for his winning argument before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore in 2000. But Olson has devoted most of his energies in private practice to changing the legal and political climate for American business. According to his peers in the elite Supreme Court bar, he more than anyone else is responsible for transforming the approach to one of the most important legal concerns of the American business community: punitive damages awarded to the victims of corporate negligence.
Punitive damages — money awarded by civil juries on top of any awarded for actual harm that victims have suffered — are designed to penalize especially egregious acts of corporate misconduct resulting from malice or greed, and to deter similar wrongdoing in the future. In the 19th century, courts generally demanded a clear assignment of fault in cases where victims sued for injuries caused by malfunctioning products. It was hard for plaintiffs to recover in personal-injury cases unless the corporation was obviously at fault. But in the 20th century, in liability cases involving a rapidly expanding class of potentially dangerous products like cars, drugs and medical devices, courts increasingly applied a standard of “strict liability,” which held that manufacturers should pay whether or not they were directly at fault.
The animating idea was that manufacturers were in the best position to prevent accidents by improving their products with better design and testing. They and their insurance companies (rather than society as a whole) would shoulder the costs of accidents, thus giving them an incentive to make their products safer. Encouraged by Ralph Nader’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” published in 1965, courts began to see car accidents as predictable events that better car design could have prevented. In 1968, for example, a federal court held that car manufacturers could be sued for failing to make cars safe enough for drivers to survive crashes, even if the driver was at fault for the crash.
A series of well-publicized awards in the 1980s and ’90s culminated in the largest punitive damage award in American history the $5 billion levied against Exxon after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. This was hardly typical: the median punitive award actually fell to $50,000 in 2001 from $63,000 in 1992. Nevertheless, critics like Olson claimed that multimillion-dollar punitive-damage verdicts were threatening the health of the economy. They resolved to fight back on several fronts. In his first Supreme Court argument, in 1986, Olson set out the broad contours of his argument: for most of English and American history, private litigants were entitled to be compensated for whatever damages they suffered, including pain and suffering, but any public wrongs like the failure of American business to make cars safer by adopting air bags should be addressed by legislation or regulation, not by the courts.
Olson decided that his clients deserved not just a lawyer who could argue a case but a lawyer who could change the political culture. “You had to attack it in a broad-scale way in the legislatures, in the arena of public opinion and in the courts,” he told me recently. “I felt the business community had to approach this in a holistic way.” He set out, in lectures and op-ed pieces, to publicize especially egregious examples. The poster child for punitive-damage abuse, widely derided in TV and radio ads paid for by the business community, was a New Mexico grandmother who, in 1994, was awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages when she scalded herself with hot McDonald’s coffee. Consumer advocates countered that she had originally asked for $20,000 for medical expenses, which McDonald’s refused to pay, and the award appeared to have the effect of persuading McDonald’s to serve its coffee at a safer temperature. Nonetheless, the campaign to vilify plaintiffs’ lawyers has been effective enough that the American Association of Trial Lawyers recently changed its name to the fuzzier American Association for Justice.
The business community made other inroads against punitive damages. Corporations financed campaigns against pro-punitive-damage state judges who had been elected with the assistance of large contributions from plaintiffs’ lawyers. The business community also helped persuade more than 30 states to either impose caps on punitive-damage awards or direct substantial portions of the awards to be paid into special state funds. In 1996, it helped persuade the Republican Congress, led by Newt Gingrich, to pass legislation that would cap punitive-damage awards in product-liability cases in every state court in the country. But in 1996, President Clinton, with what must have been perverse pleasure, vetoed the bill on the grounds that it violated principles of federalism and states rights to which conservatives claimed to be devoted.
Thwarted by Clinton, and unable to persuade Congress to override the veto, opponents of punitive damages turned their attention back to the Supreme Court, looking for a victory they were unable to win in the political arena. Here, they were remarkably successful. As late as 1991, the court had refused to impose limits on a large punitive-damage award. But in a case in 1996, the court held for the first time that punitive-damage awards had to be proportional to the actual damage incurred by the plaintiff. The case involved a man who said he was deceived by BMW when it sold him a supposedly “new” car that was, in fact, used and had received a $300 touch-up job. The court, in a 5-4 opinion, overturned a $2 million punitive-damage award as “grossly excessive.” In 2003, the court clarified what it meant: a single-digit ratio between punitive damages and compensatory damages was likely to be acceptable.
Last year, the business community watched with anticipation as Roberts and Alito revealed their views about punitive damages. The case involved the estate of a heavy smoker who sued Philip Morris for deceitfully distributing a “poisonous and addictive substance.” A jury had awarded the estate $821,000 in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages — a ratio of about 100 to 1. In a 5-4 opinion written by Breyer, the court held that it was unconstitutional for a jury to use punitive damages to punish a company for its conduct toward similarly affected individuals who are not party to the lawsuit.
This spring, the court will decide the Exxon Valdez punitive-damage case, which many consider the culmination of the business community’s decades-long campaign against punitive damages. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker, whose captain had a history of alcoholism, ran into a reef and punctured the hull; 11 million gallons of oil leaked onto the coastline of Prince William Sound. A jury handed down a $5 billion punitive-damage award.
After the verdict, Exxon began providing money for academic research to support its claim that the award for damages was excessive. It financed some of the country’s most prominent scholars on both sides of the political spectrum, including the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. (Sunstein says he accepted only travel grants, not research support, from Exxon; and Kahneman stresses that the financing had no influence on the substance of his work.) In a 2002 book, “Punitive Damages: How Juries Decide,” Sunstein studied hundreds of mock-jury deliberations and concluded that jurors are unpredictable and often irrational in punitive-damage cases. Jury deliberations, he found, increase the unpredictability, as well as the dollar amount of the final awards. Sunstein concluded that a system of civil fines determined by experts, rather than punitive damages determined by juries, might be more sensible. When Exxon appealed the $5 billion verdict in 2006, it was reduced by an appellate court to $2.5 billion. The reduced verdict is once again being challenged as excessive.
Walter Dellinger, the lawyer now arguing Exxon’s case before the Supreme Court, is no Republican activist. Like Sunstein, he is one of the most respected Democratic constitutional scholars, as well as a former acting solicitor general for President Clinton. Last month, in his argument before the court, Dellinger argued that because Exxon has already paid $3.4 billion in fines, cleanup costs and compensation connected with the Exxon Valdez spill, and because it didn’t act out of malice or greed in failing to monitor the alcoholic captain, additional punitive damages would serve no “public purpose.”
During the argument, Breyer noted that the $2.5 billion punitive damage award represents a less than 10-to-1 ratio between punitive damages and compensatory damages, which is in the single-digit range that the Supreme Court has considered acceptable in the past. But Breyer also seemed concerned at other points that punitive-damage awards have not been routine in maritime cases like this one, and that the award might create “a new world for the shipping industry.” Alito, who owns Exxon Mobil stock, did not participate, and because a tie would affirm the $2.5 billion punitive-damage award, the plaintiffs who are opposing Exxon need only four votes to prevail. But whether Dellinger gets five votes, a significant triumph is already behind him: he persuaded the court to take the case in the first place.
-Supreme Court Inc.