The law calls them “tortfeasors” — those who break the rules and injure people. Why do we make them pay for the damage they cause? In part, to make sure that folks who work hard, play fair, and follow the rules are compensated for what is unfairly taken from them — lost wages, a healthy body, even life itself.
But the other reason we make rule-breakers pay is to show them and others that breaking the rules will be costly. There may be a short-term benefit from ignoring safety rules or cheating people, but in the long run breaking the rules hurts us all. So we make the rule-breakers pay to demonstrate the true cost of their behavior.
Some of the biggest habitual rule-breakers in our society are corporations. They break the rules to make money and to get an economic advantage over their competitors who do follow the rules. When they are brought to court, payment of full compensation to one individual is often nothing compared to the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars made by breaking the rules. It’s like catching a serial bank robber and making him return the money in his bag but not giving him any jail time.
A corporation cannot be put in jail. But the profit can be taken out of breaking the rules. And sometimes, corporate practices can be changed and a corporation can be reformed.
At FR, we have a long track record of taking the profit out of corporate rule-breaking through the use punitive damages. These are damages the law allows in special circumstances, to punish and deter rule-breakers-and to serve as an example to others that rule-breaking will be costly. Our punitive damage verdicts have changed the way some of this country’s largest corporations do business – resulting in fewer victims and fewer lawsuits.
In their first meetings with us, many of our clients say that they want to make sure a tragedy like theirs does not happen to someone else. We help them look for ways beyond compensation to accomplish that goal. Sometimes it is in the form of a settlement in which the corporation agrees to change the way it does business — safety devices put on products or more honest claims handling procedures. Sometimes the settlement involves a scholarship or educational program.
Other times, change comes as a result of a large punitive damages verdict after trial. A large award reported in the press can educate consumers about the product and practices of the rule-breaker. A large award can sometimes get the attention of a government agency or corporate stockholders and cause a change that has been resisted by corporate management.
At FR we believe we have a part to play in policing Corporate America – making sure the corporations follow the same rules the rest of us do. With the help of our brave clients, we strive to get judges and juries to see beyond compensation, to the larger social good.