How Are Punitive Damages Calculated In A Wrongful Death Case?

A wrongful death case is a difficult thing to deal with. Not only is it an upsetting situation due to the circumstances of what lead to it, but it is a bit of a complicated process to handle. There are a number of different damages associated with a wrongful death lawsuit, one of which is referred to as punitive damages. But what are punitive damages, and how are they calculated?

What are punitive damages?

Punitive damages have a long history, dating far earlier than our legal system has even existed. The first known use of punitive damages in recorded history occurred almost 4,000 years ago in multiple systems of law, such as Babylonian law. The United States, through a Supreme Court decision, finally had punitive damages recognized, with the decision declaring that punitive damages had support from multiple judicial decisions for much of America’s history. It was still far less common back in the day but has been increasingly employed as time went on.

Basically, many types of damages exist as a response to a wrongful death. For example, medical expenses you had to take on for the victim, or funeral costs, can be compensated in a wrongful death lawsuit. However, punitive damages are damages not in response to any damages that you experience. Instead, punitive damages exist to punish someone in a wrongful death lawsuit (as well as some other types of lawsuits) for their actions. Punitive damages do not exist in order to give further relief to the plaintiff, but when all is said and done, the plaintiff is the one who benefits from the punitive damages the most. There are multiple criteria that may be considered. Two common criteria include determining how negligent the defendant was, and how other situations were handled. For the former, the court must determine whether the action that lead to the death was intentional, grossly negligent, or malicious. For the latter, the court may look at similar situations to determine whether punitive damages are appropriate. If no punitive damages are awarded in those cases, it could prove as a stumbling block if such damages are sought. With that said, it is always possible for the judge to defy the other cases and determine that punitive damages should be applied here. The goal of punitive damages is to ensure that the person responsible have an incentive to not engage in the behavior or actions that lead to the victim’s death. Punitive damages can even be awarded in the event that this is not the first time the defendant has engaged in this behavior or committed this infraction.

A common cause for punitive damage being applied is if it is a corporation, who may have multiple potential victims due to a dangerous product or service. For instance, a phone company that has defective, explosive batteries could be made to pay punitive damages, to ensure that they make legitimate effort to make their phones safe, and to be more diligent in testing their phones for defects.

How are punitive damages complicated?

Punitive damages come in different forms, depending on how the state handles them. Some states are more willing to award punitive damages than others. Punitive damages are offered only if other damages are present. In the case of a wrongful death, if it is proven that another party was responsible for the victim’s death, it is likely that the medical and funeral costs, as well as other damages, will be covered in the lawsuit.

Damages have to be calculated based on certain factors. One of the key factors is that the punitive damages are relatively proportionate to the other damages awarded. Most jurisdictions restrict the cap for punitive damages to be only as much as four times as much as you were awarded in compensatory damages. Depending on the circumstances of the case, the jury may decide to offer lower than four times. For example, if someone was being grossly negligent, it would likely see them have to pay less in punitive damages than someone whose actions were malicious in nature. Another type of damages is called treble damages, which is when a plaintiff was entitled to collect three times as much as they would if they only received compensatory damages. There is also double damages, which is exactly how it sounds. Whether you receive double or treble damages is ultimately going to depend on whether the judge finds merit in awarding either.

Punitive damages may be more likely to be applied, especially to their maximum allowable, depending on the financial situation of the defendant. For example, if the person who caused the wrongful death is incredibly wealthy, the judge may deem that the damages as they exist are inadequate to properly dissuade the defendant from engaging in their behavior again in the future. This is a common issue in law, where fines (punitive or otherwise) are handed out with no consideration for the wealth of the offender, meaning that a rich offender has relatively smaller reason to avoid this. It is especially likely if this is not the first time, they have been involved in such a situation.

Punitive damages in medical malpractice cases

Medical malpractice also plays a factor in calculating punitive damages. There is a hard cap for punitive damages in medical malpractice cases, regardless of how much you receive in compensatory damages. The state limit typically ranges from $250,000 to upward of $750,000. Punitive damages in such a case are usually reserved for incidents where the medical malpractice was particularly egregious. For example, a surgeon who operates on someone while under the influence would be considered to be behaving in a grossly negligent manner. Or a doctor who prescribed a medication to a patient despite knowing full well that it would interact negatively with  their medication. In both cases, the individual had every reason to believe that their actions could lead to an injury or even death, so they cannot simply say it was an unforeseeable accident.

Hire an attorney to better understand punitive damages

It is important to understand exactly how much you can receive in damages from filing a wrongful death lawsuit. One of the best ways to do this is to work with the skilled attorneys at Strong Law Attorneys. Not only will they represent you diligently and efficiently, but they will also help you better understand the circumstances of your case. Whether you should pursue punitive damages will ultimately depend on the factors above, and wrongful death attorneys are skilled enough to be able to tell whether your case is strong enough to justify it.


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