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A Needed Touch-Up

Congress wrestled for more than a year with proposals to cap punitive damages in product-liability cases. It finally passed a bill, but President Clinton vetoed it in early May, and the veto was upheld.

Now the Supreme Court has stepped into the fray, striking down a highly publicized Alabama award. A slim majority of justices decided that $2 million in damages for a touched-up paint job on a new BMW was not only questionable, but constitutionally impermissible.

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The court put forward a number of tests for gauging whether a punitive-damages award exceeds the "equal protection of the law" guaranteed by the Constitution. But the justices didn't set up a formula to be applied to all cases. Ample room is left for lawyerly argument, especially in cases where the damage done a plaintiff is more egregious than a retouched luxury car.

The court's action is welcome as a note of sanity in the clamorous realm of civil litigation. The earlier effort by Congress to sound a similar note may have overstepped in attempting to set a specific limit on damages, since the facts and merits of individual cases can widely diverge.

The Supreme Court's action should at least force juries and judges to consider some rational boundaries when weighing damages. As the dissenting justices noted, state lawmakers are hard at work in this arena too, and the court's ruling shouldn't preempt their efforts.

Still, a national step toward moderation was needed. The credibility of the civil justice system is seriously dented by multimillion-dollar paint-job awards.

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