Monday, April 4, 2011

Illinois Supreme Court reaffirms doctrine that denies right to punitive damages in death cases

Under Illinois law, any right to common law punitive damages is lost if the injured party dies. This means that plaintiffs in those cases where the claim is wrongful death do not have a right to recover for punitive damages regardless of how reprehensible the defendant's conduct may have been.

This is an unusual position that should be abandoned. Taken to the extreme in a "worst case scenario", it means a defendant may be better off killing his victim than allowing him to survive with serious injuries.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of the state just issued a new decision affirming the doctrine. In a case called Vincent v Alden-Park Strathmoor, Inc. (available here), the Court was asked to decide whether a claim for punitive damages based on allegations of willful and wanton violation of the Nursing Home Care Act survives the death of the nursing home resident on whose behalf the cause of action was brought. The Court held that although common law punitive damages are available for willful and wanton violations of the Nursing Home Care Act, and although causes of action based on the Nursing Home Care Act survive the death of the nursing home resident alleged to have been injured as a result of violation of the Act, it does not necessarily follow that common law punitive damages may be recovered in a Nursing Home Care Act case where the nursing home resident is deceased "because of another basic principle of Illinois law: as a general rule, the right to seek punitive damages for personal injuries does not survive the death of the injured party."

I don't understand why Illinois does not recognize punitive damages in death cases while allowing them in other cases. I know there are states that have eliminated or capped punitive damages as part of tort reform efforts, but I don't know of any other jurisdiction that recognizes punitives in some cases but not in death cases. I do confess, however, I have not researched the question. If you know of another state that uses the same approach please post a comment here or send me a message.

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