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Punitive Damage Basics in the Civil Law

One of the first questions those considering taking legal action ask involve their recovery. What damages does the law allow? In most cases the answer is pretty straightforward–medical expenses, pain and suffering, emotional loss, and more. In some cases of senior abuse or neglect there may also be lost wages, though most seniors in these cases do not work.

On top of these damages, some may have heard about “punitive damages.” These are unique awards which do not seek to connect damage to a specific harm suffered by a plaintiff. Instead, punitive damages are rooted in punishment–seeking to deter others from engaging in similar conduct as the defendants. Much confusion remains around these damages. They remain quite rare, and, in most cases, they will not be awarded. To help explain the situation the Center for Justice and Democracy has a “White Paper” that provides a helpful overview. Click Here to view the entire document.

Punitive Liability
The civil justice system serves various purposes–including both helping those hurt by misconduct and acting as a deterrent to limit misconduct in the future. Punitive damages are focused entirely on the latter. The CJ&D paper provides a clear-sighted summary from well-known judge, Richard Posner on the way these damages are used:

The potential injurer will be deterred from inflicting harm unless the benefits to him are greater. If we do not want him to balance costs and benefits in this fashion, we can add a dollop of punitive damages to makes the costs greater.

The idea is that it is never acceptable for defendants (often companies or big businesses) to make cost-benefit analysis which determine how many people they are willing to see hurt so long as it does not cost them too much. This was most vividly displayed in car accident cases. There are a few high-profile cases where company executives explicitly indicated that they may not make design changes which would minimize deadly accidents simply because they’d rather pay damage awards after the injury. The punitive damage awards changes the cost-benefit analysis and, in the end, saves lives.

Claims for “Reform”
It should be no surprise that corporate lobbyist have been attacking punitive damages for quite some time. One problem is that some court decisions and legislative changes are de-coupling the punitive damage award to a company’s wealth. This is dangerous, because if the award is not based on the size of the company, then the deterrent effect may not exist. The largest companies can afford large payment without much problem.

Contact a Chicago Nursing Home Lawyer
It is only very rare cases where punitive damages would be awarded following senior abuse or misconduct. It would need to involve system-wide, egregious, willful misconduct. However, that does not mean that the victims coming forward and demanding compensation for their harm do not still serve a deterrent effect. They do. Large nursing home companies do not like to pay out damage awards after misconduct. Therefore, they may be spurred to make safety changes (i.e. ensure proper staffing) in order to avoid future claims following neglect if you press for your rights.

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