In Bollea v. Gawker, Bollea was awarded $140 million damages for "invasion of privacy, infringement of personality rights, and intentional infliction of emotional distress".

This seems orders of magnitude higher than would have been awarded in a continental european court. For instance, the German Wikipedia writes:

Die höchsten von deutschen Gerichten zugesprochenen Schmerzensgelder finden sich u. a. in den Urteilen des Landgerichts Aachen vom 30. November 2011 – 11 O 478/09 (= 700.000 € im Falle eines auf das schwerste gehirngeschädigten Kleinkindes), .... Mit einer ganz anderen Thematik – nämlich einer schwersten Persönlichkeitsrechtsverletzung des bekannten Autors und Wettermoderators Jörg Kachelmann – hatte sich das LG Köln (Urteile vom 30. September 2015 – 28 O 2/14 und 28 O 7/14) zu befassen und dem Kläger ein Schmerzensgeld in Höhe von insgesamt 635.000 € zuerkannt; diese Urteile sind jedoch noch nicht rechtskräftig, – mit einer Entscheidung des OLG Köln ist 2016 zu rechnen.


The highest damages ever awarded by a German court were: 700.000 € to an infant that suffered most severe brain damage, ... and in a completely different matter, a most severe violation of personal rights of the well known author and weather presenter Jörg Kachelmann, 635.000 €, though that has been appealed.

What difference in law causes US and european courts to award such vastly different damages?


Common law countries (like the USA) recognise the concept of punitive damages for torts. Civil law countries (like Europe) don't.

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    True, but $115M of Bollea's award was compensatory. Do you get huge payouts like that in Australia? – user6726 Aug 19 '16 at 4:02
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    No, largely because jury's don't set the compensation, judges do and our judges are appointed not elected – Dale M Aug 19 '16 at 4:04
  • I confess I am unfamiliar with common law. Why do juries set larger compensations? – meriton Aug 28 '16 at 0:48
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    @meriton because juries are more likely than judges to react emotionally. Judges will look at precedent and have wider experience of mans inhumanity to man – Dale M Aug 28 '16 at 2:56

One reason is that in a German civil suit, the cost for lawyers and for the court (court isn't free) is set according to the value that the parties are arguing about, which would be the value that one party demands, minus the value that the other party is offering to pay. Then the cost is divided between winner and loser according to the percentage of the value the claimant was awarded.

So if I ask for €1,000,000 and I am rewarded €10,000 then the cost is calculated based on my €1,000,000 claim, and since I was rewarded only 1% of the claim, I'll pay 99% of the cost. The defendant will pay my €10,000 and 1% of the cost, that is my lawyers, their lawyers, and the court. With these rules, asking for the sky and then not getting much is a very, very bad strategy.

On the other hand, if a huge company sues me for €10,000 then they can't snow me under with an army of lawyers: The court will get only a small amount of money for the case, so at some rather early point the judge would tell the huge company: Stop right now; I'm not paid enough money to listen to your army of lawyers.

  • Could you quantify this effect? In the US, are the majority of the damages actually lawyer fees? – meriton Aug 28 '16 at 0:44

On a theoretical basis in products liability law and similar tort law, American law rests on the premises that relatively little government regulation will be backed up by civil litigation standards that help keep companies in line. European law relies on more pervasive regulation, but much more difficult civil remedies in terms of both damages and discovery. In theory, the American perspective should result in a more just outcome on an individual basis because each case is judged on the facts of that case with more extensive discovery to determine the wrong and higher damages to punish the wrong-doers and put plaintiffs back in their rightful position, but the European perspective can head off more wrongs before they occur and promote more certainty for businesses.

Although in an individual case basis, American law offers higher recoveries, it is hard to tell what promotes more responsible action by potential defendants.

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    The theory that the outcome is more just because the case can be judged individually faces a practice that if you want tu sue a company for damages, you are in a massive disadvantage, because the company you are suing can afford the better lawyers an has more financial resources to go through a long lawsuit. A large part of the European law is aimed towards mitigating this inequality of power. If you regulate large companies, their opponent in the lawsuit will be the public administration, which is a far more equal opponent. So which system is more just is a matter of perspective. – Sefe Nov 19 '16 at 9:53

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