Welcome to another edition of Claim Your Justice Facebook Live. Thank you for viewing today and in the future. As a reminder, we encourage any questions. You can post questions below or you can join during a live session, post a question, and we will try and answer it.
This is designed to help the Facebook community learn as much as possible about what to do when you or someone in your life is wrongfully injured in an accident, and need to make a recovery to compensate them for the damages suffered.
Today we’re going to talk about a topic called punitive damages. It’s not a frequent occurrence. However, it’s recently in the news as of yesterday with a big jury verdict out of Cook County. Which makes this a perfect opportunity to provide information to the Community about punitive damages.
I have here with me Jessica Wong Barrera from our office, she is going to ask a couple of questions. I’m going to answer those questions. It should provide the information that we’re looking to provide today. I think this provides a better format for us to exchange ideas and information. So Jessica, what’s the first question you have for me?
Q: What are punitive damages?
A: Good question. The meaning of punitive damages is built into the word punitive. It’s generally designed to punish. It’s not frequent for punitive damages to be available in a case. The concept behind punitive damages is that they’re awarded, in addition to other damages, to punish the wrongdoer. Whether it’s a driver who was under the influence of alcohol or drugs or a company that’s polluting the water around its offices and complexes. It’s designed to punish a person or entity for wrongful conduct.
Q: When can an injured person recover punitive damages?
A: So as I said, it’s not that common. We have several cases in the office where our clients were injured by drivers who were charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. What happens in those cases, is we have client that is seriously injured as a result of these types of incidences. The person who is responsible has insurance, they could have a $50,000 policy, they could have a $25,000 policy, a $100,000 policy, they could have a $1,000,000 policy.
However, the damage that they caused to our client can exceed the amount of the insurance coverage. We’ve talked in past sessions about underinsured motorist coverage for when there is not enough insurance from the responsible party to cover all of our client’s injuries and medical bills.
What punitive damages allow you to do is go beyond the insurance policy. You could secure the insurance money, and then depending on the financial resources of the person that’s responsible for the accident, go beyond that. You could have a guy who’s driving around and has several million dollars of assets, he has only a $1,000,000 insurance policy, but we have a client with a $2,500,000 injury.
It doesn’t stop there. First of all, our client most likely won’t have underinsured motorist coverage over a million dollars. However, punitive damages allow us to take the insurance policy money and then continue to pursue a claim in court for damages beyond the insurance policy.
That’s one situation.
You do have certain elements to prove. You need to prove that it’s either fraudulent, intentional, or willful and wanton, meaning that the offender shows a complete disregard for humanity. You have to show that that action caused the damage and that we’re able to establish to a court that awarding punitive damages will provide justice and that the “public good” requires it.
The amount of punitive damages will be an amount that is designed to punish the defendant for causing the accident and discourage future people from displaying the same type of conduct.
Q: Who can punitive damages be awarded against?
A: Let’s go back to the DUI case. You have a driver, and so we would ask that the punitive damages be awarded against that person, individually. However, if the driver was driving a business vehicle under the influence of alcohol, and we could establish that the business didn’t do enough to supervise, monitor, or train that employee, then we could ask for punitive damages to be awarded against not only the individual, who in that case likely wouldn’t have additional resources to pay punitive damages but the business.
The business didn’t do what they were supposed to do by putting that driver on the road. They could have had a BAC device in the car where the driver has to blow in it to start the car. Maybe they didn’t do a proper background check to see that the driver had prior DUIs on his record. The ultimate goal is to find as many sources as possible to pursue to maximize the recovery and make sure there are enough insurance and financial resources out there to compensate our seriously injured clients.
Q: What are real-life examples of when punitive damages can be awarded?
We talked about DUI, I think we covered that sufficiently. In a previous Facebook Live session, we talked about a hotel scenario, and how could we find the owner of a business or a third party liable for the criminal acts of another. One of the examples I talked about was where a hotel worker secured the keys to a person’s room, went into that person’s room, and sexually assaulted that person.
So you have an intentional act of sexual assault or criminal sexual assault, and you want to be able to have an award that achieves justice, and the “public good” should require it, and what amount of money will both punish the defendant for not doing what they were supposed to be doing, the hotel in this situation, and discourage other hotels from failing to do what they need to do to protect their guests.
So you’ve got a DUI, you’ve got sexual assault, you could have a battery case. For example, let’s say a security guard beats a customer who may be a little intoxicated, or maybe a little out of control at a bar. Instead of security just escorting that person out of the bar, they beat the living heck out of the person.
Again, it was an intentional act and we want to discourage, we both want to punish the defendant and discourage others from having the same conduct. More recently, it was in the paper yesterday, there was a big jury verdict award in excess of $300 million against the company called Sterigenics.
Sterigenics was a company that sterilized equipment used by medical professionals. The argument is they were polluting the water around the area where the Sterigenics plant was. In this particular case, a woman brought her case and said that her breast cancer was caused by the contaminated water from this company. Horrible, this should not happen in a community. There was more than $200 million in punitive damages. This case fits nicely into the bucket of being able to punish the company for what it did and to discourage other companies from not taking the necessary actions to protect the property around them.
Q: Are there any monetary caps on punitive damages?
With regard to the monetary caps, we talked about insurance limits. However, the insurance limits don’t apply, so in Illinois, there are no caps on punitive damages. In the case we just talked about Sterigenics, they awarded a huge nine-figure number on damages. In Illinois, and most states, judges have the discretion to reduce the punitive damages awarded. So, the jury decides what they think the damages are worth.
Frequently a measure of punitive damages is the company does $1,000,000,000 a year in revenue, if you just give us 1%, that’ll be $10 million, if you give us 5% that’ll be $50 million. A lot of times the argument is made to the jury, that you take a percentage of their revenues or their profits, and you award that to the plaintiff to compensate them for their injuries and punish the defendant.
Q: Are you able to sue both the individual and the company as two separate civil cases for punitive damages?
Yes. You would absolutely make your claim against both. The goal is to sue anyone who would be responsible for the injury. So, you would make a claim. If you have the DUI driver, driving the company vehicle, you’d make a claim against the individual in the company. Generally, we have to be realistic here, a driver who’s driving a delivery truck isn’t going to have a personal policy that’s going to cover them for the necessary number of damages that our client suffered.
Remember, we’re here to protect our client’s rights and help you Claim Your Justice. Please call us with any questions regarding personal injuries, workers’ compensation, or wrongful death, call us at 847-434-3555.