Punitive Damages: A State of Mind

There is an old expression, and not an overly cheerful one, dictating that bad things happen to good people every day. When one is physically or mentally harmed through no fault of his or her own, most states (where lawsuits almost always must begin) allow for compensatory damages, if not punitive damages. However, as nonsensical as it may seem, the same injury can result in vastly different decisions in courtrooms from one state to the other.

Variations on a Theme

Some states, like Michigan, allow courts in civil cases to award punitive damages without a limit on the amount. Other states, like Arizona, have laws in place that prohibit such claims from being filed against public entities or employees. Certain states, like Alabama and Alaska, cap the damages at a certain amount or at three times the amount of compensatory damages. Places like Nebraska or the U.S. Virgin Islands simply will not allow punitive damages to be awarded in any form.

Room for Improvement – and Uniformity

Even the standard for proving worthiness of collecting punitive damages varies among states in which it is allowed. In Arkansas, the claim must “shock the conscience of the court” – whatever that means. In both Iowa and Hawaii, where there are no caps, all that is required is “clear and convincing proof”. In both Georgia and Indiana, the state’s criminal victim’s compensation fund receives 75% of any funds awarded, with only 25% being forwarded to the actual victim.

It would appear that a certain amount of uniformity would be in order, if even on a regional basis, so that citizens just a few miles apart from each other can have a reasonable expectation of equal treatment under the law – which is nothing less than a Constitutional right. When one thinks of “tort reform”, that would be a good area of civil litigation on which to put in some time and effort.