Punitive Damages Against a Decedent?

Florida allows for compensatory damages in personal injury and wrongful death claims against defendants and punitive damages in certain circumstances. Plaintiffs must seek leave of court to allege punitive damages upon a proffer of evidence of reasonable basis for punitive damages.

Punitive damages are capped as follows:

  • 3x compensatory damages or $500,0000;
  • 4x compensatory damages or $2,000,000unless the conduct was motivated solely by unreasonable finial gain; or
  • No cap if the jury finds the defendant had a specific intent to cause harm.

Punitive damages are exactly what the name entails as they are simply a monetary award to the Plaintiff to punish the defendant for his wrongful actions. Punitive damages are routinely sought in lawsuits arising out of automobile accidents in which the at fault driver (Defendant) was driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

However, many people may not know that the death of the defendant bars puntive damages. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that punitive damages arising from the decedent’s actions are not awardable against the estate. Lohr v Byrd, 522 So. 2d 845, (Fla. 1988.) Punitive damages are to punish the misconduct of the tortfeasor in addition to compensatory damages. Id. Upon the death of the tortfeasor, there is no one to punish and it would be an injustice to punish the innocent heirs. Id. Accordingly, if the defendant died in the accident or subsequently dies before trial, punitive damages may not be sought.

Civil theft treble damages are recoverable against the estate. The reasoning is because treble damages provided by statute are remedial in nature and thus distinguishable from punitive damages. Snyder v Bell, 746 So. 2d 1096, (Fla. 2nd D.C.A. 1999.)

The death of the defendant will not reduce your award for compensatory or remedial damages. Instead, the death will bar recovery of punitive damages. The same arguments should be made when representing a defendant who has been ruled incompetent and has a guardian appointed. Unfortunately, there is no case law on that issue at this time.

Punitive Damages Against a Decedent?