A bill, which takes away a civil jury’s right to determine whether punitive damages should be awarded in appropriate civil jury trials, was recently introduced in the South Carolina House and Senate. This legislation is said to make the state more “business-friendly”. Before deciding if this is a good idea, we must first look at what happened regarding the salmonella-tainted peanut butter at the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Georgia. The plant distributed contaminated peanut butter even after tests of the product between 2007 and 2008 revealed it to be bad. Over seven hundred known cases of salmonella have been connected to the tainted product, leaving two hundred people hospitalized and nine people dead.
Over eight hundred food products containing the peanut butter have been recalled making it the largest food recall in American history. Punitive damages are intended to punish a wrongdoer for knowingly harming innocent people, so in a case like this it seems only right that a company, which acts with such a reckless disregard for the safety of the public, be punished. This awarding of punitive damages may deter other companies from acting in a similar way.
Currently, South Carolina law requires a judge to hold a post-trial review of any punitive damages award to determine if they are appropriate. Also, punitive damages must be proven by a much higher legal standard of “clear and convincing evidence” at trial. The public policy ramifications in taking away this extra protection to the American consumer will only increase the likelihood that South Carolina will face a similar situation that Georgia now faces. A cut in punitive damages would get rid of an important deterrent that holds companies accountable for their products.