While discussing the possibility of filing a wrongful death case against another person or entity, an attorney will go over the possible claims for damages that could be included in the suit. One of the points that often come up in the discussion is whether or not punitive damages could be part of the claim. Here are a few things that the client needs to understand about the nature of punitive damages and what circumstances would allow them to be included.
What are Punitive Damages?
Damages of this type are not related to any actual expenses or even the loss of future earnings that the deceased would reasonably be expected to generate if he or she had lived.
The focus is on taking an action designed to discourage the party responsible for the death from repeating the same actions that led to the fatality.
In short, this type of damage claim is intended to punish the responsible party for committing the negligence or the improper acts that led to the death. At the same time, the damages serve as one more incentive to refrain from taking those same courses of action in the future.
Are Punitive Damages Applicable in All Cases?
The answer is no. In fact, there are court jurisdictions where the restrictions on punitive damages make it difficult to include them in a suit. At other times, the circumstances surrounding the death preclude the possibility of including punitive damages at all.
Are There Exceptions?
There are exceptions in some jurisdictions that do allow for the recovery of punitive damages in a civil case. One example applies in the state of California and a number of other states. In the event a criminal case is filed against the responsible party and there is a conviction for a felony homicide, that does pave the way for the survivors of the deceased to include punitive damages in a wrongful death suit.
This is notable in the OJ Simpson case, you can read the NYTimes article here: https://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/11/us/jury-decides-simpson-must-pay-25-million-in-punitive-award.html
In this situation, a representative of the decedent’s estate is in a position to file the suit and seek damages on behalf of the estate. The rationale is that if the deceased had lived and would have been in a position to file a personal injury suit, damages of this type would have been allowed. To an extent, this means a court which recognizes this is allowing the estate to carry out a legal action that the individual would have done had he or she lived.
What About Exemplary Damages?
In states where the inclusion of punitive damages is not possible, the attorney may look into the possibility of seeking what is known as exemplary damages. Like punitive damages, exemplary damages are intended to draw attention to the actions or negligence of the person responsible for the death. Awarding these types of damages serves essentially the same purposes as awarding punitive damages in other states, since doing so serves as a deterrent for taking the same course of actions again. While the difference between the two may seem to be little to most people, lawmakers tend to see exemplary damages as serving the good of the public at large while punitive damages are more focused on compensation for the survivors. An example would be if a defective bong or e-rig explodes.
Are There Limits on the Amount of the Recovery?
In states where punitive damages can be included in a wrongful death suit, the laws typically focus on the intent of the person who caused the death. It’s possible in those jurisdictions to seek these kinds of damages if it can be proven to the satisfaction of the court that the acts or negligence arose out of malicious intent to do harm to the individual who ultimately died.
Even after establishing the actions were intentional, malicious, and carried out with full knowledge that they would cause harm and possibly death, there are often limits on the amount that the plaintiff can recover. One factor has to do with when the actions or negligence took place. Even if the laws governing punitive damages have changed, cases that were filed prior to the date of those changes will be governed by the previous laws.
When discussing the possibility of filing a wrongful death suit, always discuss what kinds of damages can be included. Based on the nature of the events leading up to the death and how current laws relate to those events, punitive damages may or may not be a possibility.
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