This chapter — to be included in Research Handbook on the Economics of Torts (Arlen ed., Kluwer, forthcoming 2012) — assesses economic rationales for punitive damages in light of contemporary empirics and doctrine. The primary economic rationale for supra-compensatory damages is optimal deterrence (or loss internalization): when compensatory damages alone will not induce an actor to take cost-justified safety precautions, then supra-compensatory damages are necessary to force the actor to internalize the full scope of the harms caused by his actions. Alternative economic rationales — disgorgement of ill-gotten gains and enforcement of property rights — have been proposed to align the theory with the historical and conventional focus of punitive damages on intentionally wrongful behavior.
Notwithstanding its academic prominence, the economic deterrence rationale has not dominated doctrine. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has all but rejected economic deterrence, by instead placing increasing emphasis on a competing retributive punishment rationale. But, since punitive damages lie squarely within the purview of state law, state legislatures and courts possess a degree of freedom to articulate state-based goals of punitive damages — such as economic deterrence — even in the face of heavy-handed federal constitutional review imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sharkey, Catherine M., Economic Analysis of Punitive Damages: Theory, Empirics, and Doctrine (December 15, 2011). RESEARCH HANDBOOK ON THE ECONOMICS OF TORT, Jennifer Arlen, ed., Kluwer, Forthcoming.