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Punitive damage awards increased dramatically in California in the last 10 years, totaling as much as $6.4 billion during the 1990s. That’s according to a study released Friday by the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law’s Capital Center for Government Law & Policy. And according to the study’s findings, punitive damage awards rose from an average of $5.6 million per case at the beginning of the 1990s to $19.3 million in the second half of the decade. The study also reveals that over the last 10 years punitive damages accounted for 88.4 percent of the total damages awarded to plaintiffs. On average, those damages were 7.6 times greater than the total amount for compensatory damages, and juries awarded much higher verdicts than did judges — an average of $15.5 million per case compared with $930,000. According to the study, which was authored by Professor Clark Kelso and Kari Kelso, the highest punitive damage awards could be found in four areas: product liability, insurance bad faith, unfair competition and trespass/nuisance. The study was made possible by a grant from the Civil Justice Association of California, a major tort reform group that favors restrictions on punitive awards. But its authors said CJAC was not consulted in the process and they stand by their independent results. Still, CJAC wasted little time Friday using the results to bolster its position that punitive damages are out of control. “These finding show the trend identified in the early ’90s is continuing,” said CJAC President John Sullivan. “The alarms are sounding: It’s time California grabbed this runaway monster by the horns.” Sullivan’s association is currently sponsoring legislation that would limit punitive damages against small businesses to three times the actual damages awarded at trial. AB 840, carried by state Assemblyman Robert Pacheco, R-City of Industry, Calif., is scheduled to go before the California Assembly Judiciary Committee today. Still, the study was not without its critics. Bruce Broillet, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, the leading trial lawyers group in the state, said the results had to be looked at with a jaundiced eye. “It was sponsored by people who want to do away with punitive damages,” he said. The Santa Monica, Calif., attorney added that if punitive damages have risen over the last decade it’s because corporations have placed profits over the health and safety of consumers. He said the study was simply a way of trying to get corporations off the hook. “Corporations had better wake up to the fact that the reason punitive damages have increased is because they have become so arrogant,” he said.

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