“Reconstructing Malice in the Law of Punitive Damages”

I’m pleased to announce that my new paper, Reconstructing Malice in the Law of Punitive Damages, will be published by the Journal of Tort Law next year. The paper is my first foray into tort law scholarship, though I have been teaching Torts for the last 3 years at St. John’s. Malice, in the common law of crime and tort, is a thorny subject with a complicated and ancient lineage. Indeed, there are interesting connections between law and religion, on the one hand, and notions of malice in the law, on the other. But malice’s legacy was questioned beginning in the 19th century with Holmes (and others including J.F. Stephen) and then repudiated more decisively in the work of 20th century tort law giants like William Prosser and criminal law giants like Herbert Wechsler.

This paper attempts to reconstruct a historically correct, conceptually coherent, and normatively compelling case for malice’s reintroduction into the law of punitive damages. It also speculates about the utility of this reconstructed account of malice in other fields, especially criminal law. Finally, though this paper does not approach this topic, it does suggest the possibility of reconstructivism as a broader theory of law and legal development, something about which I hope to write in the future. Here is the abstract.

Punitive damages present two related puzzles. One concerns their object. If they are punitive, their object is to punish tortfeasors. If they are damages, their object is to compensate tort victims. If they are both, as the Supreme Court has recently stated, the problem is to reconcile these different objects in applying them. A second puzzle involves their subject. Punitive damages are awarded for egregious wrongdoing. But the nature of that egregiousness is nebulous and contested, implicating many poorly understood terms. The two puzzles are connected, because the subject of punitive damages will inform their object. Once we know the type of wrongfulness that punitive damages deal with, we can understand better whether and how they are punishing, compensating, or both.

This Article reconstructs one of punitive damages’ central subjects: malice. In so doing, it clarifies one key object of punitive damages: to offer redress to a victim of cruelty. Malice is a ubiquitous textual element in the state law of punitive damages. But there has been little scholarly commentary about what malice means for punitive damages. Drawing from the common history of tort and criminal law, this Article identifies two core meanings of malice: a desire or motive to do wrong, and a disposition of callous indifference to the wrong inflicted. Though distinct, these meanings broadly coalesce in the concept of cruelty. The Article argues that this reconstructed account of the wrong of malice represents a powerful justification for awarding punitive damages. Malice as cruelty as a justification for punitive damages also fits within a broader view of tort law as redress for specific private wrongs. But malice as a subject of punitive damages clarifies and enriches this account of their object. A victim of a tort done with malice, and who is aware of it, has been wronged more gravely than a victim of a tort done without malice and is therefore entitled to greater redress.