How Are Punitive Damages Calculated In A Wrongful Death Case?

Wrongful Death Case

In a personal injury lawsuit, potential damages are typically calculated and ultimately awarded based on the impact the injured party sustained. When there has been a wrongful death, damages are given to the decedent’s family members for economic and emotional compensation due to a death that resulted from another’s negligence. In this case, these damages are known as compensatory damages and cover items like –

  • Loss of financial contribution
  • Loss of parenting guidance when children are involved.
  • Funeral expenses for the decedent, among other options.

There are unique circumstances where additional monetary damages can be awarded with respect to what is known as punitive damages. Punitive damages, which are generally awarded in civil litigation, are additional monies that may be awarded against a defendant if their actions were deemed reckless or done with malicious intent. As its name implies, punitive damages are designed to punish an individual for egregious actions and to deter similar future actions.

However, when filing a wrong death lawsuit that includes punitive damages, bereaved family members or friends may find the necessary guidance by hiring experienced, wrongful death lawyers to facilitate what can be an arduous and technical process.

Wrongful Death Case

Determining Punitive Damages in a Wrongful Death

Although ultimately a decision by the judge, one potential technique of determining if the award of punitive damages is warranted is to determine if the defendant’s actions were considered grossly negligent. In the law, gross negligence is considered more egregious than ordinary negligence, which only requires that an individual act without reasonable care. Gross negligence requires that the action or behavior be done with complete & conscious disregard for the rights, safety, or life of another person(s).

A jury typically determines the exact amount awarded against a defendant in terms of punitive damages. Here are a few common examples of lawsuits in which punitive damages may be awarded to the plaintiffs who have implemented a wrongful death case –

  • If an automobile accident was caused by a drunk, a distracted, or reckless driver.
  • A resident of a nursing home is injured or dies as a result of his or her caretaker’s intentional negligence.
  • Product liability cases/class action lawsuits against large, multi-national corporations that willfully ignore potentially harmful, dangerous, or defective products.
  • Those lawsuits regarding medical malpractice cases where medical personnel, who are personally involved, proactively alter medical records in an effort to cover their errors and mistakes.

Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant. Punitive damages are not common and must be proven to be necessary to be awarded. Factors that are typically considered when calculating punitive damages in a wrongful death lawsuit include –

  • The magnitude and the extent of the cruelty of the defendant’s actions.
  • The severity of the injuries sustained by the victim(s) or the severity of the impact felt by the members of the decedent’s surviving family – as it relates to the events caused by the defendant’s actions.
  • The amount of punitive damages is generally set at an amount that seeks to deter the defendant from behaving similarly in the future.
  • The plaintiff’s financial vulnerability.
  • Whether the defendant tried to hide his or her wrongdoing.
  • How long the defendant’s misconduct went on.
  • The defendant’s net worth may be considered in calculating punitive damages.

However, it is noted that judges have the legal authority to review an award issued by a jury and choose to –

  • Find the punitive damages that were awarded to be excessive and reduce the amount of the awarded damages, or
  • Find the punitive damages that were awarded to be excessive and set the awarded damages aside completely.

Limits to Punitive Damages

The laws on the books related to punitive damages will vary from state to state, with each state having the authority to set forth limits to punitive damage awards within that state’s jurisdiction. Some state legislators have set forth caps that limit damages, whereas some other states do not permit the awarding of punitive damages at all.

For instance, the state of Florida and in Alabama caps punitive damage amounts to no more than three times the amount awarded for compensatory damages, or $500,000, whichever is greater. (FS XLV 768.73 (2020)).

In Illinois, there is no law that places a cap on the amount that may be awarded as punitive damages.  The Illinois applicable laws are available online.

The Supreme Court’s Take-Away

The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken with regard to this issue. It has provided relevant guidance as follows – most punitive damages awarded that have amounts that exceed a “single-digit ratio” – compared to the awarded compensatory damages – will be overturned by rule.

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