Can punitive damages be cruel and unusual?

By The West Virginia Record | May 31, 2016

Most Americans would affirm the common sense legal principle that the punishment should fit the crime, perhaps disagreeing as to what fits and what doesn't in a given case.

The Eighth Amendment to our Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment. As far as we know, there is not now, nor has there ever been, any real effort to repeal this amendment, though hate-crime legislation and other thought-crime proposals do represent an unfortunate trend (in violation of the spirit of the Eighth Amendment, as well as the First).

Punishments imposed in other cultures, such as lopping off the hands of thieves, strike most of us as cruel and unusual, excessive, even barbaric – but that doesn't mean that we Americans never go overboard with retribution.

Punitive judgments imposed by judges or juries – in addition to reasonable damages – sometimes seem to fall into this category. While a defendant shown to have done harm to another party should be obliged to make restitution, and may be punished further if the harm is demonstrated to have been willful or needlessly prolonged, there can be no justification for the imposition of outrageous penalties.

Whatever our opinion of the guilty party – or the professional, political, or other class being represented – the punishment should fit the crime. Period. No exceptions.

This does not seem to be the case in the judgment recently rendered against Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC.

Last week, a federal jury awarded $6,128.39 in damages to David M. Daugherty of Vienna in compensation for Ocwen's allegedly willful violation of the Fair Credit and Reporting Act. That judgment may have been fair, even though the evidence suggests that Ocwen made an effort to correct errors in Daugherty's credit report.

But the jury also awarded Daugherty $2.5 million in punitive damages, more than 25 times the value of the mortgage in question.

It's hard to see how that punishment fits the alleged crime.

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