Laws Take The Mystery Out Of Punitive Damage Awards

No two words strike more fear into the hearts of civil defense attorneys than “punitive damages”. An award of punitive damages is meant to be financial punishment for wrong doing, and a warning against committing the same misconduct in the future. Juries all over the country have awarded monumental sums to plaintiffs in an effort to curtail bad behavior. In Illinois, the current punitive damage cap, and restrictions on the application of such damages, does limit a defendant’s exposure. A personal injury lawyer in Chicago can pursue the damages in most cases, but the judge will ultimately decide if the jury is allowed to award them.

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Punitive Damage Awards

Over the last five years, the state of Illinois has enacted a series of reforms that define punitive damages and establish the situations in which they can be used. Currently, juries must go through a three step process to award punitive damages.

General Guidelines

Illinois has some of the strictest rules in the United States with regard to the application of punitive damages. In some cases, including medical malpractice suits, punitive damages are unavailable in any instance of wrong-doing. The judge will determine if the case meets the minimum statutory requirements before giving the jury further instructions on the award of damages.

During the trial, a personal injury lawyer in Chicago must provide “clear and convincing evidence” of wrong-doing motivated by malice. Simple accidents do not qualify for punitive damages, because the defendant did not demonstrate highly negligent or reckless behavior. In making the case for punitive damages, a personal injury lawyer in Chicago must go beyond the typical standard of preponderance of the evidence to prove the defendant responsible for causing harm to the plaintiff. When seeking punitive damages, much of the lawyer’s attention during the trial will be focused on meeting this standard.

Finally, if a jury is to award punitive damages, they must also award economic or non-economic compensation. Punitive damages cannot exist on their own; they are an additional punishment to deter a return to bad behavior.

Once all of the general guidelines are met, and the judge instructs the jury they may award punitive damages, the jury begins its three step test.

Step One: The Extent Of The Damaging Conduct

In the first step, the jury deliberates the extent of the damaging conduct, and the degree of malice with which the defendant pursued the conduct. It is at this point that the jury decides on the reprehensibility of the defendant’s behavior. The more unethical or blatantly harmful the behavior, the higher the award will be.

Juries may also take into account how much the defendant benefited from their poor conduct. If a personal injury lawyer in Chicago can show the defendant made significant financial gains because of the behavior, the jury is likely to pursue the punitive damage cap. On the other hand, the defense can argue the misconduct brought little or no benefit to the defendant, an argument that undermines the plaintiff’s claim of intent to cause harm.

Step Two: The Level Of Harm

Next, the jury decides the level of harm suffered by the plaintiff. Often the restrictions put in place for economic and non-economic compensation are not high enough to satisfy the jury, and they may seek to supplement the other damages through a punitive damage award. The judge will instruct the jury not to make an award that is unreasonable in comparison to the injuries suffered by the plaintiff.

In this stage, the jury can only focus on the damage caused directly to the plaintiff, and not how the defendant’s behavior affected people who are not part of the lawsuit. This limitation is especially important in product liability cases, or lawsuits that could become class action suits.

Step Three: The Level Of Damages Needed To Be A Deterrent

Once all of the other conditions have been met, the jury can determine an award. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant for bad behavior, so the award should be high enough to act as a deterrent for future behavior.

Juries may take into account the defendant’s personal wealth, business holdings, and other personal assets when deciding how much money is required to make the defendant think twice before repeating the behavior that brought them to trial. The current cap on punitive damages in Illinois limits what a personal injury lawyer in Chicago can seek, but $300,000 is still a stiff penalty for most defendants.

Punitive damages are the best way to ensure a person or business does not repeat the same pattern of misconduct over and over again.