Illinois Injury Law Issues – Claims for Punitive Damages Die with the Patient?

Punitive damages are among the variety of damages to be won in a torts case, including those involving nursing home abuse and neglect.These damages, are meant to do just say: make an example of and punish the person who is liable for the wrongdoing that caused a plaintiff’s injury. On top of this rationale, it is also meant to deter others from engaging in the same type of behavior that would lead to similar injury to others in the future.

Punitive damages, or at least the headline-grabbing ones, tend to be quite hefty, and are handed down by juries, or sometimes judges, as a demonstration of disgust with the defendant or defendants’ conduct, and to let others know that such behavior will not be tolerated. Punitive damages are not compensatory like more measurable economic damages, which compensate a plaintiff for lost wages, medical expenses, damaged property, and other items. Where compensatory damages are inadequate and disproportionate to the liability, punitive damages will likely be used.

Receiving Punitive Damages

In the context of Illinois nursing homes, punitive damages can be used where a defendant’s willful or wanton behavior leads to the injury of a patient resident. This could be serious abuse inflicted on a patient by a staffer, for example. Punitive damages are allowed in Illinois for willful or wanton behavior, but one significant question that arose in the state in recent years was whether punitive damages could be asserted in the nursing home context, under the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act or otherwise, where the plaintiff died.

In general, punitive damages are not available where a plaintiff has died. In the relevant question here, the answer again is “No.” In a case called Vincent v. Alden Park Strathmore, Inc., a woman died after what her lawsuit claimed was negligent and abusive behavior of her by the nursing home staff where she resided. In this case, the Illinois Supreme Court (aka the highest court in the state) addressed the aforementioned question, and held that punitive damages could not be had where the nursing home resident is no longer alive. Thus the resident’s family cannot still sue for punitive damages on behalf of the state. The Illinois Supreme Court grounded this decision in the fact that the Nursing Home Care Act does not explicitly provide a right for a deceased nursing home resident’s estate to bring a claim for punitive damages on the basis of the willful or wanton, intentional or grossly negligence conduct, of a nursing home staffer that resulted in injury and the death of the patient.

In general not having the right to sue for punitive damages where the plaintiff has died (and in such situations it would be the plaintiff’s estate doing the suing) takes away the punishment and deterrence motivations of punitive damages. The Court explained how under Illinois law punitive damages typically do not survive the plaintiff’s death, and thus only compensatory damages could be found. Only where actual legislation expressly allows it could such damages be used. Thus it would be interesting to see over time whether the legislature will add such a right to claim punitive damages. Having this option would perhaps enhance the punishing effect on nursing homes and their staff for horrible behavior that injures patients who die, and possibly prevent such behavior in the future.

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