Drum roll, please.
Today the Supreme Court takes up, in a rare 90-minute session, the question of whether Exxon ought to pay half of the $5 billion punitive award that an Alaska jury ordered it to fork over in the civil trial about the Exxon Valdez crash/oil spill/disaster.
Fewer doubts crowd around the effect of possible punitive awards on the willingness of a contingent fee lawyer to take a case. What matters to us, damages-wise, is the actuals. Not the punies. Punies are icing on the cake, actuals the cake.
In the lore of plaintiffs’ lawyerdom, a genuine shot a punitives doesn’t foretoken a windfall of extra damages. It means only that plaintiffs will recover, God willing, a bigger percentage of their actual losses. The possibility of earthly punishment increases the value of strong cases. And the resulting necessity of paying more in actuals, we think, accounts more than anything else for the tort reforming folks’ extreme hostility to just about any punitive award.