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Punitive Damages in a Wrongful Death Claim

Everyone knows that accidents happen. However, some accidents only happen when someone behaves in a way that is malicious, criminal, grossly negligent, wanton, or reckless. In such situations, victims and their families may be entitled to punitive damages.

Need to Know:

  • Punitive damages are additional damages that a plaintiff may claim if the defendant’s actions are deemed to be significantly negligent, malicious, or reckless
  • Gross negligence means that the person or entity at fault must have acted with “conscious disregard or indifference to others’ safety, life or rights.”
  • Punitive damages are legal in New York and there is no state-specific cap on the amount that can be awarded.

Punitive damages are a complex and uncommon occurrence in personal injury and wrongful death cases, but they can be a vital resource for those who were tragically impacted by exceedingly misguided behavior. Continue reading to better understand how punitive damages work and how they may apply to you.

In This Article:

What Are Punitive Damages?

In wrongful death cases, damages may be awarded to the surviving family members (the plaintiff) to ensure that they are compensated for some of the difficulties they now must face. In these cases, the money the plaintiff is awarded is known as compensatory damages. In wrongful death actions in New York, qualifying family members are entitled to pecuniary losses, which include such items as funeral expenses, the decedent’s lost financial contribution, the value of the decedent’s lost household services, and – where children are involved – the loss of parental guidance.

However, in some rare and extreme cases, punitive damages can be awarded in addition to compensatory damages. Punitive damages are extra funds that the defendant is ordered to pay if his actions were deemed to be especially reckless or if there was malicious intent in his wrongdoing. These damages are meant to be a punishment for particularly wrongful or egregious actions, and to deter the defendant (and others) from taking similar actions in the future. Punitive damages, which only appear in civil cases, function similarly to extensive prison time in criminal cases. Punitive damages apply to personal injury cases in general, as well as wrongful death ones.

One well-known case involving punitive damages occurred in 1992, when a woman sued McDonald’s after she suffered second and third-degree burns from spilling their hot coffee onto herself. During the case investigation, it came to light that over 700 similar claims had been made against McDonald’s in the last 10 years, implying that they were aware of the excessive temperature of their coffee and the damage it could do to people. Because this could be interpreted as their consciously ignoring a known risk to the public, McDonald’s was ordered to pay $480,000 in punitive damages, on top of the $200,000 of compensatory damages they already had to pay.

$20,000,000 Awarded for Punitive Damages in New York

We at Block O’Toole & Murphy recently tried to verdict a case involving the Child Victims Act, which is a New York law that re-opened the Statute of Limitations for a set period of time to allow adult victims of childhood sexual abuse to bring claims against their abusers and those who allowed the abuse to occur.

After obtaining a liability verdict against our client’s abuser, we argued to the trial judge that the claim of repeated sexual abuse of a minor over the course of several years was the type of reprehensible conduct for which a jury should be allowed to consider punitive damages to punish the Defendant. Defense counsel argued strongly against this, but the Court found in our favor and we were allowed to request punitive damages from the jury. The jury returned a verdict of $20,000,000 in punitive damages against the Defendant, in addition to a finding of $6,000,000 for past pain and suffering and $4,000,000 for future pain and suffering.

How are Punitive Damages Determined?

One possible method of determining whether punitive damages should be allocated in a particular case is to determine if the defendant acted with gross negligence. A step further than typical negligence, gross negligence means that the person or entity at fault must have acted with “conscious disregard or indifference to others’ safety, life or rights,” rather than the definition of ordinary negligence, which merely requires that the offending party have acted without reasonable care.

Some examples of cases in which punitive damages may be awarded include:

  • A drunk or reckless driver causes a car accident under exceptionally egregious circumstances
  • Nursing home residents are injured or die due to a caretaker’s intentional neglect
  • Large corporations that ignore potentially defective or harmful products in product liability cases
  • Medical malpractice cases in which the doctors involved purposely change medical records to hide their mistakes

Typically, it is up to the jury to determine the amount of punitive damages that will be awarded. Factors that are normally considered include:

  • The cruelty of the defendant
  • The severity of the plaintiff’s injuries
  • The extent to which the plaintiff’s injuries (or surviving family’s struggles, in wrongful death cases) relate to the actions of the defendant
  • A reasonable amount of punitive damages that would deter the defendant from acting this way again

Punitive damages are generally only awarded in civil courts when someone’s extreme recklessness or willful indifference has caused harm to someone else. They are also quite rare; punitive damages are hardly ever awarded unless they can be proven necessary.

Limits to Punitive Damages

Laws related to punitive damages vary by state, and there are limits to the amount of punitive damages that can be distributed. Some states have imposed caps on the amount that can be awarded, and some states do not allow punitive damages at all. For example, Florida does not allow punitive damages more than three times the amount of compensatory damages, and some courts in California require that punitive damages do not exceed ten percent of a defendant’s net worth.

Although the defendant’s financial situation is considered when evaluating punitive damage awards-it is not considered when determining the compensatory amount — most do not exceed 10 times the amount of the compensatory damages. Any more than that is typically deemed to be excessive; in fact, the United States Supreme Court has said that most punitive damage amounts that go beyond a “single-digit ratio” in comparison to the compensatory damages will be overturned.

Punitive Damages in New York

It is legal to pursue punitive damages in New York. There is no state-specific cap on the amount that can be awarded, but it is likely that the United States Supreme Court’s suggested limit on punitive damages would apply here. This means that punitive damage awards that exceed 10 times the amount of compensatory damages would likely be deemed excessive and overturned in New York.

Although punitive damages are legal in New York, it is still exceedingly rare to successfully make a claim for them. Punitive damages are not available in most personal injury and wrongful death cases. However, if you believe that you or a loved one are entitled to punitive damages in a wrongful death case, it is best to speak to a New York wrongful death lawyer, who can help you determine what kind of compensation you may be entitled to.

The Child Victims Act case was the first case that went to a jury verdict on this law in the State of New York. Though, as indicated above, the entitlement to punitive damages is rare; this was the type of case in which it was permitted by the Court and the jury to render a punitive damages award of $20,000,000 in favor of the Plaintiff, an adult man who had been sexually abused by his school teacher while in elementary and middle school over the course of several years.

Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

If you lost a loved one due to another’s negligence, you may be entitled to a number of wrongful death damages. Our New York wrongful death lawyers are dedicated to helping families who have lost loved ones due to another’s intentional, malicious, or negligent conduct. We have years of experience handling wrongful death claims in New York and have attained a high level of respect within the legal community.

  • $15,000,000 settlement for the family of a man who was tragically killed while working on a project at a hospital when a large piece of equipment that was improperly hoisted fell onto him
  • $7,525,000 settlement for the surviving family of a mother and son who died in a tragic car crash
  • $7,200,000 settlement for a 25-year-old Brooklyn man who died in an elevator accident, leaving behind his wife and two young daughters
  • $5,000,000 settlement for the four children of a mother who was killed in a heartbreaking garbage truck accident
  • $3,000,000 settlement for the family of a man who passed away after he was involved in a serious car accident

From our past experience working with bereaved families, we understand that the period following the loss of a loved one is extremely difficult. Often these family members do not have the time or the will to address practical concerns, such as the filing of a wrongful death lawsuit. Let us help you through this difficult time. Call us at 212-736-5300 or fill out our contact form to speak with a qualified wrongful death attorney today.

As with every client, we will treat you with compassion and work hard to ensure you are supported and your legal rights are protected. Serving Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and all of New York City.

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