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Punitive Damages in a Wrongful Death Action

Suffering the loss of a loved one can be incredibly difficult for surviving family and friends. In addition to dealing with the emotional and mental trauma, a family may face financial hardship as a result of their loss. If you have lost a loved one due to another party’s negligence, intentional wrongdoing, or failure to act, you may be entitled to compensation such as punitive damages for their death.

Arizona law allows certain individuals, such as surviving spouses, children, parents, and estate representatives to sue the party liable for the decedent’s death if the deceased would have been able to sue the wrongdoer had they not died. This is known as a wrongful death action.

A wrongful death action allows particular individuals who were financially, or otherwise, dependent on the deceased to recover money for the damages they suffer as a result of the decedent’s death. While these damages can include compensation for a variety of losses, it is important to remember that the people being compensated in a wrongful death action are certain survivors of the deceased, not the deceased themselves. As such, the survivors will be compensated for their injuries, not for the injuries of the decedent. Depending on the specific facts of a case, the survivors may be entitled to compensatory, general, and punitive damages.

Damages

When a person wins a civil lawsuit, one of the things that can happen is they are awarded damages or money. There are three types of damages that can be awarded:

  • Compensatory Damages. These types of damages are also known as pecuniary damages and are generally used to compensate the victim for their injuries, treatment for their injuries, lost wages, and property loses.
  • General Damages. These types of damages are often sought in conjunction with compensatory damages and generally are awarded when the victim has suffered a less tangible loss or an injury that is hard to specify. Such things as mental anguish, pain and suffering, and loss of companionship may fall under the category of general damages.
  • Punitive Damages. While the first two types of damages are meant to compensate the victim for their injuries and losses, punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer and to deter wrongful action in the future by the wrongdoer and others. Punitive damages are also referred to as exemplary damages since they are supposed to set an example of what not do.

Punitive damages are not awarded in all cases and may be harder to obtain than compensatory and general damages because the party seeking punitive damages must prove that the wrongdoer engaged in some sort of aggravating and outrageous behavior.

Punitive Damages

Under the common law, punitive damages are awarded in cases where the wrongdoer’s conduct was accompanied by an evil mind. This state of mind could be inferred by things such as:

  • An intent to harm someone
  • Interference with another person’s rights
  • Motivation to engage in wrongful conduct due to spite or ill-will
  • Consciously acting in a manner, or engaging in the behavior, that posed a substantial risk of harm to others

Arizona law recognizes that punitive damages may be awarded in common law cases where appropriate. Further, the Arizona legislature can grant a right to pursue punitive damages in the laws they pass, if they choose. 

In instances where a statute defines an offense, punitive damages may be awarded if the law directly states that punitive damages may be awarded, or if the language of the law or statutory history indicate that the legislature intended that punitive damages are appropriate. This is important because under Arizona law the right to maintain a lawsuit for wrongful death is purely statutory, including the damages to which the wronged party is entitled.

Punitive Damages in a Wrongful Death Action

In Arizona, wrongful death actions are governed primarily by three statutes, including Arizona Revised Statutes 12-611, 12-612, and 12-613. A.R.S. 12-613 details to what damages, or compensation, a successful party bringing a wrongful death action may be entitled.

While Arizona Revised Statute 12-613, does not explicitly state that punitive damages may be pursued in a wrongful death action, Arizona courts recognize the language of the law as allowing an award of punitive damages if the jury sees fit. A.R.S. 12-613 is broad and grants great discretion to the jury to “give such damages as it deems fair and just with reference to the injury resulting from the death to the surviving parties who may be entitled to recover.” Additionally, the jury can consider “mitigating or aggravating circumstances attending the wrongful act, neglect or default.” (A.R.S. 12-613.)

It is precisely the “mitigating or aggravating” language that Arizona courts have grasped to in order to support punitive damage awards in wrongful death cases. This language was added to A.R.S. 12-613 by the Arizona legislature in 1956 following the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision in Downs, where the Court stated that plaintiffs in a wrongful death action were not allowed to pursue punitive damages. (Downs v. Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Coop., 297 P.2d 339 (Ariz.1956.) Since the legislature added the “mitigating or aggravating” language months after Downs, the courts have interpreted the legislative history as indicating that Arizona lawmakers intended that parties to a wrongful death action may seek punitive damages. (See, Boies v. Cole, 90 Ariz. 198, 203, 407 P.2d 917 (Ariz. 1965.)

Many states hold that since punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer for their malicious behavior, if the wrongdoer is also dead then punitive damages cannot be awarded in a wrongful death case. This was the common rule for Arizona as well until 2001. In Haralson, the Arizona Supreme Court states that since punitive damages are not only meant to punish, but also to serve as a deterrent for wrongful behavior from others in the community, there should be no outright prohibition of punitive damages being assessed against a wrongdoer’s estate. (Haralson v. Fisher Surveying, Inc., 31 P3d 114, 201 Ariz. 1 (Ariz., 2001.) Thus, under Arizona law, a statutory beneficiary may seek punitive damages from the wrongdoer’s estate.

Like the common law award for punitive damages, which requires something more than intent or knowledge for an award, in Arizona, even if a law permits pursuit of punitive damages the party seeking them must prove that the wrongdoer’s actions were the result of an evil mind while they engaged in aggravating and outrageous conduct.

Evil Mind

In Arizona, if a law does not say the required mental state the wrongdoer must possess in order for punitive damages to be appropriate, then the courts defer to the evil mind standard. An evil mind can be shown by proving the wrongdoer had an ill will and intentionally harmed the victim, or participated in conduct that they knew caused a substantial risk of harming others.

In Rawlings, the Arizona Supreme Court states that a defendant acts with an evil mind if he “should be consciously aware of the evil of his actions, of the spitefulness of his motives or that his conduct is so outrageous, oppressive or intolerable in that it creates a substantial risk of tremendous harm to others.” (Rawlings v. Apodaca, 151 Ariz. 149, 162, (1986.)

To determine whether a defendant acted with an evil mind, “a court examines factors such as:

  • The reprehensibility of the conduct
  • The severity of harm that was actually or potentially imposed and the defendant’s awareness of it
  • The duration of the misconduct, and
  • Any concealment of the risk of harm.” (Hudgins v. Southwest Airlines, 212 P.3d 810 (Ariz. Ct. App., 2009.)

The wrongdoer’s state of mind may be proven by both circumstantial and indirect evidence, and can be inferred from their conduct. When assessing whether punitive damages are appropriate and for how much, the jury’s focus should be on the wrongdoer’s state of mind, intent, and motive. Moreover, the focus must be on the wrongdoer’s conduct at the time of the incident, not the wrongdoer’s conduct before or after the incident. (Forquer v. Pinal County, 526 P.2d 1064, 22 Ariz.App. 266 (Ariz. App., 1974.) However, conduct after or before the incident, when viewed in its totality and with other evidence, may be used to prove an evil mind.

Evidentiary Standard

In order for a jury to award punitive damages, the party seeking the damages must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the wrongdoer possessed an evil mind while they engaged in outrageous and aggravated conduct. (Hudgins v. Southwest Airlines, 212 P.3d 810 (Ariz. Ct. App., 2009.)

Punitive damages may be more difficult to win because the party seeking them must prove to the jury more than that the wrongdoer was negligent. For example, negligence occurs when a person with a duty to prevent foreseeable harm to others fails in their duty, thereby harming others. A person can negligently cause a car accident because they were talking or texting on their phone while driving. Although they may be liable for compensatory and general damages for their negligence, they may not be liable for punitive damages, since talking or texting on a cell phone does not, by itself, indicate they had an evil mind.

Examples of some things that have been allowed into evidence to prove that the wrongdoer acted particularly egregious and warranted an assessment of punitive damages include:

In order for a jury to award punitive damages, it must find that the wrongdoer acted in such a way that a reasonable person would deem such behavior as outrageous, spiteful, malicious, fraudulent, or something of like sort.

Limits on Punitive Damage Awards

Although some state legislatures have enacted laws to limit the number of punitive damages that may be awarded in certain types of cases, the Arizona legislature has not. The Arizona Constitution states that “no law shall be enacted [] limiting the amounts of damages to be recovered for causing the death or injury of any person.” (Arizona Constitution, Article 2 Section 31.)

While Arizona state law does not limit the number of damages a victim in a personal injury or wrongful death case may be awarded, a good rule of thumb is that a punitive damage award should not be ten times greater than the combined compensatory and general damages, as this might be deemed excessive and unconstitutional. (State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (U.S. 2003.)

Who Can Receive Punitive Damages

Punitive damages can be awarded to the statutory beneficiaries, including surviving spouses, children, parents, or a representative of the estate. However, not all statutory beneficiaries may receive punitive damages. This is so even if they are awarded compensatory and general damages.

An award for damages is to be distributed to the statutory beneficiaries in proportion to the amount of harm they suffered as a result of the decedent’s death. Since each beneficiary may suffer differently, their award may be unique. For example, a minor child who was completely dependent on their deceased parent may receive a larger award than a sibling who is of majority age and supports themselves. Both siblings may be entitled to a share in the award resulting from the wrongful death lawsuit, but the amount of money they receive can be different because they will have suffered different loses.

Contact Thompson Law Firm

Dealing with the loss of a loved one can be very difficult and leave individuals feeling sad, angry, confused, and frustrated, among other things. In addition to the emotional weight that death brings, there are also practical matters that must be attended to. The deceased may have contributed to a household by providing money, services, and mental support. If your loved one died as the result of another party’s negligence or wrongdoing you may be entitled to compensation for your loss.

Knowing how to proceed with a lawsuit can be confusing and frustrating. You should not have to worry about legalities during a time when you should be focused on healing. For help understanding your rights, and learning about what types of recourse you may have against those who have harmed you, contact the experienced and compassionate legal team at the Thompson Law Firm today.

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