LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Reviewing substantial punitive awards is needed

By The West Virginia Record | Nov 6, 2008

Dear Editor:

This letter is in response to Lawrence Smith's Oct. 9 article, "Court Candidates differ on punitive damages, caseload."

At the Oct. 6 Supreme Court of Appeals candidate forum, all three judicial candidates agreed that cases involving "substantial" punitive damages awards should be reviewed as a matter of course by the Supreme Court of Appeals.

While the definition of "substantial" at this point is unclear, this is great news.

West Virginia circuit courts awarded three of the nation's top 10 dollar value verdicts of 2007, in amounts ranging from about $200 million to $400 million. The Supreme Court of Appeals has decided to hear the appeal of one of these cases, but the sheer magnitude of each award should compel the court to review all three of these decisions.

Punitive damages awards are designed to punish the parties they are levied against and to deter future malicious conduct. However, judges should only allow juries to consider punitive damages when the plaintiff proves malice, because punitive awards can have a devastating effect on the state's business climate. Multi-million dollar verdicts may reduce the willingness of businesses to come to West Virginia and invest in this state.

When the Supreme Court of Appeals declines to review cases like these, it sends a clear message to corporations that the appellate system will offer them little recourse in the event a lawsuit goes against them.

Kristen Leddy
York, Pa.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Leddy is a judicial clerk and co-author of "Should We Keep this Court? An Economic Examination of Recent Decisions Made by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals," available at www.fed-soc.org/westvirginia.

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