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Punitive Damages, Social Norms, and Economic Analysis


Law and morality forbid acts that cause uncompensable harms or create unreasonable risks. When people intentionally commit such acts, courts express anger and indignation at the wrongdoer through speech and punishment. In a system of social norms with multiple equilibria, expressions of emotion signal commitment and coordinate expectations. In a system of social norms with a unique, stable equilibrium, legal sactions deter marginally. Social norms, however, provide a better guide to the need for punitive damages than to their extent. Courts make a serious error in asking jurors to assign punitive damages without providing detailed instructions on their computation. The court in a typical case should impose the minimum punishment required to deter wrongdoing.

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