The Constitutionality of Punitive Damages Under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment

This Note explores whether courts should look beyond the broad language in Ingraham v. Wright and scrutinize punitive damages under the excessive fines clause. Part I sets out the intuitive argument that punitive damages are analogous to criminal fines. Part II analyzes the Supreme Court’s decision in Ingraham v. Wright and also reviews the few federal and state court decisions that have dealt with the excessive fines clause in civil cases, most of which have concluded that the clause has no application in a civil setting. This Part asserts that courts cannot rely solely on the Ingraham decision but must examine the history of the excessive fines clause and the penal character of punitive damages. Part III pursues the analysis that is lacking in those decisions which have relied on Ingraham. First, this Part sketches the history of the eighth amendment to determine whether the excessive fines clause should apply only to criminal fines and not civil punitive damages or whether the clause expresses a broader principle requiring proportionality in punishments of any form. Second, this Part questions whether punitive damages are sufficiently penal to implicate eighth amendment scrutiny. Part III suggests that courts apply the analysis outlined in Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, rather than Ingraham. Finally, Part IV concludes that, since the excessive fines clause is historically linked to civil monetary penalties and since punitive damages are penal in nature, excessive awards violate the eighth amendment’s principle of proportionality in punishments. This Note contends that the eighth amendment, unlike other constitutional protections, functions as a restraint on the broader system of punishment rather than simply the process through which criminals are prosecuted. It argues that courts should determine whether punitive damages are sufficiently penal to warrant eighth amendment protection and not whether punitive damages are criminal or quasi-criminal sanctions.