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Civil Lawsuits & Punitive Damages

Birth injury cases are civil lawsuits usually alleging medical malpractice. As we often point out, verdicts and settlements in these cases are sometimes higher than other matters, because the consequences of the injury have effects over a lifetime. For example, if a child with cerebral palsy needs special equipment, medical care, and more over the course of five or six decades, then the costs will be incredibly high. For this reason it is possible, though not necessarily common, for these cases to come with verdicts or settlements of seven figures or more.

Types of Damages in Birth Injury Cases
People often associate all large verdicts with “punitive” damages. Punitive damages are not meant to compensate a victim for their specific harm but instead seek to punish the wrongdoer. It is helpful to understand that large verdicts in birth injury cases almost never involve punitive damages. Instead, they refer to compensatory damages–to “compensate” the victim.

Many of those who decry large verdicts in these cases may be confused about the purpose of the award. Even though paying large verdicts may seem like a punishment, that is not the purpose in these cases. Attorneys working on the matter provide juries (or the opposing party in settlement discussions) with very specific reasons for all damage requests. It is not some large number plucked out of thin air and intended to penalized medical providers for their errors.

Punitive Damages
However, that is not to say that punitive damages are never possible in birth injury matters. But it takes a truly unique situation for such damages to be appropriate–shocking or egregious conduct. This week Justia published a handy primer on the history of punitive damages. It is a great introductory essay that explains how these awards came about and their current limits under state and federal law.

The story notes how some refer to punitive damages as “quasi-criminal,” because the “punishment” aspect of the award is more akin to a criminal sanction than to the usual civil law purposes of providing compensation to make an injured party whole. In fact, those hit with large punitive damage awards–usually large businesses, insurance companies, and other chronic defendants–have made legal arguments over the last few decades suggesting that punitive damages violated the federal constitution.

At first defendant’s argued that the award violated the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause in the document which prohibits excessive fines. Yet, judges struck down that argument early on, because it doesn’t apply to suits filed by private parties. Later, claims were made that the large awards violated the due process clause in the 14th Amendment. Defendants have had a little more success in this regard, as some cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that certain punitive damage awards (the very largest) may violate the 14th Amendment. In reaching those decisions, the Court noted that a reasonableness factor must come into play, as the punitive damages likely should not be untethered to the size of compensatory damages. They noted that punitive damages over 10x the compensatory damages may be excessive.

As it stands now, there is still murkiness in the law regarding when the damages are appropriate and how much is too much. For birth injury purposes, however, this is rarely an issue that matters. An attorney who works on these cases can explain how damages might work in your matter.

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