No Punitive Damages Against Deceased

The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that personal injury victims cannot receive punitive damages against a person who is dead.

The Court’s summary paragraph puts it this way: “The plaintiffs in this case were injured in an accident as passengers in a car driven by their father while he was intoxicated. After their father died of unrelated causes, the children brought this suit against his estate. We hold that Indiana law does not permit recovery of punitive damages from a decedent’s estate.”

In the text of the opinion the Court says this: “We think, however, there is little, if any, additional deterrence supplied by the prospect that one’s estate may be liable for punitive damages if one does not survive. Most tortfeasors in the case of an accident such as this presumably do not contemplate their own demise. If they consider punitive damages at all, they will deem themselves exposed to that possibility. To the extent the tortfeasor thinks at all about the consequences of his tort after he dies, he will recognize that he and his estate will have the obligation to provide full compensation to any victim. If we ever encounter a case where a tortfeasor seems to have considered his own death as an escape from punitive dam-ages incident to some intentional tort, we can address that issue at that time. For now, we are content to hold that the purposes of punitive damages are not served by recovering them from a decedent.”

I think that 4th sentence is a little snotty, don’t you?

The majority also said this: “The effect of a punitive damages award against an estate is that the punishment will ultimately be borne by the heirs who are presumably wholly innocent of any wrongdoing. We think affirmative injustice thus would be done by allowing the deceased’s innocent heirs to be punished for the wrongdoing of the decedent.”

One judge dissented: “Suffice it to say that I find the contrary authority cited by the Court allowing recovery to be more persuasive. I only add to the points made by the Court that, first, I give the value of deterrence far greater weight than does the Court and that, second, I think it greatly overstates the harm that would be done to “wholly innocent” heirs if punitive damages were recoverable from an estate. After all, under the Court’s holding, the effect on a decedent’s heirs would be exactly the same if the decedent paid a puni-tive damages award on the day preceding his or her death. Whether a guilty person’s assets should be subject to an assessment for punitive damages should not turn on the vicissitude of whether the guilty person happens to still be alive at the date of assessment or not.”

You can read the entire opinion here.